June 1, 2018

THE OFFENSE OF SHADOWS by Alexander Zalben

It was that halfway point when the fairies had just begun to wake up 
that it was easiest to catch them...
“The best time for catching fairies is dawn, but right after sunset is a good second option.”

Carlos saw his son smile, and he smiled back. It was late for the five-year-old to be awake, but it was summer and he had no school the next day. Plus, it was a perfect night: warm, but not clammy; the breeze cool, but not too strong.

They entered the large park at the center of town by its main entrance, and Carlos squeezed his son’s hand. Carlos’ own father had taken him fairy-catching as a child, but this was his first time taking Sebastian. It felt like a special moment, a memory he wanted to hold onto for a long time.

The moon was full and shining, illuminating the leaves of the trees in the park with a crisp silver, the shadows playing delicately on the ground. On the horizon, the sun had just set, and the edge of the world glowed a deep purple. It was that halfway point when the fairies had just begun to wake up, still sluggish from their slumber, that it was easiest to catch them.

Carlos stopped at a bench, and picked up Sebastian, carefully plopping him down on the slats. Then he took off his backpack, zipped it open and pulled out two jars. He handed one to his son, and took the other for himself.

“The trick is to let them go into the jar, rather than chasing after them. You don’t want to scare them off.”

Taking Sebastian’s hand again, they walked a few feet away from the bench, and then stood, still and silent.

They waited like that for a minute, until Carlos saw the first fairy.

“Over there,” he whispered. He pointed to a bush off the main path. At first, there was nothing. Then the leaves glowed, a bright tinkling blue. Another light, purple this time. Then pink, and red, until the entire bush was lit up brighter than a Christmas tree.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Carlos asked, and immediately flashed back to long nights spent chasing fairies with his father. When Carlos was young, his father was never there, always working or going out with friends, leaving him alone for quiet, angry dinners at home. Yet somehow, when the weather became warm and the days long, he would always find time to take Carlos to the park.

Now Carlos was sharing this with his own son, and his heart filled with joy.

Beckoning Sebastian to follow, they creeped through the wet grass towards the glowing bush. Carlos could feel the tops of the blades tickling his legs just above his socks.

When they had drawn close enough to the bush that they could almost reach out and touch the leaves, Carlos slowly, quietly screwed open the top of the jar. They could see the fairies clearly now. Underneath the glow, they were about an inch tall, completely smooth and naked. They flew on wings that reminded Carlos of a dragonfly. Their miniscule hands ended in fingers so tiny they almost didn’t exist, and feet with toes the same.

Gently, Carlos edged his body closer to one, its blue glow illuminating his hands. He held the lid of the jar ready in one hand, the jar in the other.

Then, in one quick movement, he scooped the surprised fairy up in the jar, and shut the lid.

The rest of the fairies scattered at the noise, flying away through the park. Carlos held the jar to eye level to make sure he had, in fact, caught the fairy. He could see the nervous creature flitting around inside, and turned to show his son.

“Look, Seb, the first fairy of the summer!”

Sebastian was gone.

That couldn’t be right, of course. Sebastian had been right behind him, and they were in the middle of a park with no real places to hide. There was no way the boy could have disappeared so quickly.

“Sebastian!” Carlos called. Panic rose in his gullet, pictures of the boy lying dead, or worse. “Sebastian!”

“He’s with us now,” a tiny voice whispered, so small it was barely even there.

Carlos looked down at the jar and was surprised to see the fairy looking up at him, the tips of its lips curled up in an approximation of a smile. He brought the jar up to eye level, and looked, disbelieving, at the fairy.

“He’s safe,” the fairy said with a voice like a pinprick. “Happy, even. With us.”

“Give him back,” Carlos said, choking back a wail of terror.


The fairy sat down on the bottom of the jar, its wings fluttering idly.

“Give him back,” Carlos repeated, anger now bubbling through his veins. “Or I’ll smash you on the ground.”

“What do you think we would do to him, then?”

The fairy’s laugh sounded like breaking glass.

“I’ll let you go,” Carlos said, now almost in tears.

“What’s done is done,” the fairy whispered.

“Why?” Carlos asked. “Why take my son?”

“Why do you step on shadows?” the fairy asked.

Carlos flashed to the park, his father’s tall shadow looming ahead of him in the moonlight. He would jump on the head of the shadow, and his father would laugh, a deep, booming sound that filled Carlos’ young heart.

“I don’t understand,” Carlos said, but he thought perhaps he did.

They sat in silence for a moment, and then the fairy stood up, fluttering its wings.

“There is something else to trade.”

“Anything,” Carlos said desperately.

“We keep your son...”

The fairy paused as if it was thinking, but Carlos was sure it had already planned this in advance.

“...And in exchange, we’ll let you see your father.”

Carlos couldn’t comprehend what they were offering. His son, for his father? Would they bring him back from the dead? What did it even mean?

“I have my memories of my father, that’s enough,” Carlos said bitterly.

“Your absent father who ignored and hated you? The one who resented you for ruining his life? You have no memories. No good ones, at least.”

“I remember summer nights with him. I remember him putting his work away, and running through the park. I remember him laughing and throwing me in the air, then lying on our backs and counting stars. I remember all of that.”

“Do you?” the fairy asked with a twinkle in its eye.

Carlos thought about his father, the time they had spent together. But the harder he thought, the further the pictures in his mind got, until he felt like he was grasping at gossamer threads.

He remembered now, far more clearly: sneaking out at night after his father fell asleep, usually on his desk with the lamp still on, the scent of alcohol deep on his breath; taking one of the jars of moonshine his father liked to brew, dumping it out, going to the park on his own. He remembered seeing a bush filled, with fairies, and—

“I made a deal with you,” Carlos said, wonder and horror filling his voice. “I caught one of you. It was you. I... Caught you.”

The fairy said nothing.

Carlos had caught that very same fairy, and it had promised him, not nights with his father, because they couldn’t give him that. But memories of those nights, sweet and warm and full of joy. In exchange, he promised them something in return.

“I didn’t know,” Carlos cried. “I was a boy myself! How could I know?”

“A promise is a promise,” the fairy whispered. “But perhaps we can make another deal in return?”

“Give me back my son,” Carlos wailed, falling to his knees.

“We can give you something else,” the fairy said. “Free me and I will send you back.”

“I just want my son,” Carlos whispered.

“If I send you back,” the fairy said, “you’ll never have a son to begin with. You won’t remember. But you will have your father.”

“It’s all a lie.”

“It’s not a lie if you don’t know,” the fairy said, and Carlos knew it was too late, the decision had been made for him.

He unscrewed the top of the jar, and the fairy stretched its tiny arms, then flew out the top of the jar and hovered even with Carlos’ face.

“I have to,” Carlos wheezed, “I have to choose this.”

The fairy smiled once more, then tossed bright, blue dust in Carlos’ face. “You always do,” it said.

Carlos blinked once, and when his eyes opened he saw he was standing next to a park bench. The night was warm, and sweat pitted on his upper lip. A large hand held a jar towards him. He took it.

“The best time for catching fairies is dawn,” his father said, and took his hand as they began to walk into the park. “But right after sunset is a good second option.”
Alexander Zalben is the author of multiple comic books for Marvel, including the all-ages series "Thor and the Warriors Four." For the past decade he's hosted the live show and podcast Comic Book Club, which has been profiled in the New York Times. He currently works as Managing Editor at Decider.com, with previous bylines on TV Guide, MTV News and more.
Cover: Amanda Bergloff


Guy S. Ricketts said...

Whoa. What starts out as natural and simple as the equivalent to a father-son fishing trip, this story reveals layer upon layer that astounds and surprises as each layer is peeled away. Terrific tale, Alexander.

AMOffenwanger said...

Wow. So sad, and so beautiful.

heather jeanne said...

I'm late to this party, but I love this!