Changeling’s Island – Snippet 05

* * *

The plane banked steeply, giving the passengers a glorious view into the clear sea. Through the azure water, Tim could see patches of white sand in between the reefs and the weed-banks.

Molly went pale again, lost her smile. “You’d better belt up. We’re coming in to land.”

Hastily, Tim did, and looked out at the curve of the coastline — a strip of dark trees just inside the white sand. He noticed she’d stuck her hand up the narrow gap onto the window-side armrest. She must be lying forward on her knees. Her knuckles were whiter than the beach sand they were approaching. He tentatively reached across with his other hand, trying for the reassuring squeeze…only she grabbed his hand and held on, as, with a very slight bump, they touched down. It gave him an odd sort of inner satisfaction, being something of a comfort. She pulled her hand back as the plane slowed, propellers roaring. It swung round and taxied over to a tiny building in front of a car park…and stopped.

Tim blinked as the seat belts began their clacking. A sign on the building read “Flinders Island Airport.” And he’d thought Essenden small?

The girl was standing up already. She wasn’t pale anymore. Actually, she was blushing furiously through the freckle cover. “Sorry,” she whispered, awkwardly.

“Um. Like, no problem. Just thought you were worried. I…I won’t tell anyone,” he said, because he knew he would almost rather have died than admit he’d been scared enough to clutch a stranger’s hand. The hand of someone he didn’t know, and younger than he was too.

By the look he got, he also got that right. “Thanks,” she said, as she bent down and grubbed for her bags. “You’re a nice guy.” That was plainly embarrassing too, and, with haste, she grabbed her kit and joined the outflow.

Tim waited. He suddenly realized he had no idea what his grandmother looked like. He wasn’t sure how to deal with meeting her. But he was still riding on a little high. “Nice guy.” Not “nice kid.”

He was the last out of the plane, looking around at the scenery from the top step assessing his new prison-to-be.

It had a mountain. A mountain that seemed to be looking back at him, over the buildings and the trees, its distant bare-rock top lipped with cloud. It was really weird: part of his mind said, “I know that mountain, I’ve seen it so often.” But he hadn’t, he knew that. He was still looking at it as he clutched his laptop case and stepped down to the ground.

There must have been a static charge or something on the plane, because he got a weird sort of shock when his foot touched the tarmac. It was nearly strong enough to make his knees buckle, and he tripped and fell forward, only just stopping himself from face-planting onto the runway with one hand, and that gave him a shock too. He stood up hastily.

Everyone else was obviously over the static, walking cheerfully to the door of the curved-roofed airport building. Maybe it was something that always happened when you flew in little planes, and they were all used to it?

Whatever. He squared his shoulders and walked after the rest of the passengers. He could sort of remember what his grandmother sounded like, and maybe this island wasn’t going to be that bad. It was strange. He’d never been here, but it felt sort of…familiar. Like putting on a pair of his old shoes.

He stepped through the door, into a crowd of people meeting, hugging, talking and laughing. It was a crowd, but not a big crowd. There had only been about fifteen people on the plane, and it seemed that all of them, except him, had at least two people who had come to meet them.

But there was no one there waiting patiently, stepping forward to meet him. There were several old women, but they were all meeting someone else. No one was paying him a blind bit of attention. Molly — the only person whose name he even knew — was heading out of the door, towing behind her a tall man with a retreating hairline and a ponytail, who was carrying all her parcels. She was in some kind of hurry. And then he heard a loud, deep bark-storm from outside, followed by little yelps of what was obviously delight. Tim grinned, despite no one being there to meet him. He hoped he’d get outside the terminus in time to see the dog with a moustache. He looked around for a carousel. It wouldn’t take long to unload those few bags, surely?

Only there was no carousel. Not anything that could be one. Everyone was starting to drift out of the door…so Tim, not wanting to be left there standing alone, followed them out into the October sunshine. Everyone was heading for a lean-to roof next to the building, where a solitary, sturdy black-wheeled trolley was being pushed into place, piled with the luggage. Tim could see his Spiderman II bag near the top. He cringed inside a bit as people helped themselves to their suitcases and parcels and bags. Molly’s father hauled a battered pink one off the pile, and she lifted out another bag from on top of his. She gave him a rather wary half-smile. “See you,” she said, and set off for an elderly SUV — which had some mud, a few dents, and a huge, hairy brown dog panting out of the window. He did have a moustache — and about a mile of pink tongue too.

Tim’s bag was the last one left on the trolley, so he took it. Everyone was heading for cars, and he really didn’t know what to do now. He didn’t want to go back into the airport building and look spare. There was an aluminum bench outside the door. He’d sit there. She couldn’t miss him surely? There was no way to walk in without walking past him. He still had a few minutes of battery life in the laptop.

So he sat. Cars and utes — passenger vehicles with a cargo tray in the rear — left. Silence came down over the little airport. A kookaburra laughed at him sitting there, but no one else did, because there was no one else to see him. He couldn’t even see any other buildings from here, just stark forested hills spiked with rock, and the mountain looking at him over the trees. He took out the laptop, started on Starcraft II. But the battery died before he did. So he just sat. Sat and felt hungry.

There was a vending machine inside, and a Lions’ mints honesty box on the counter. But he realized that he literally didn’t have any money at all. He’d spent almost the last of it with Hailey on buying the two of them milkshakes before his venture into being a shoplifter. The store security guy had taken Tim’s wallet out of his pocket…and hadn’t given it back. So it had probably burned with the store.

Time did not pass quickly or easily, or without everything coming back to plague his mind, while he was just sitting.

It was too easy to play “if only I had…”

* * *

Áed saw the place they had come to as it was, not as mere geography. It was a place of power. A place of sorrows and a place of gladness. A place of refuge. A place that had once been very much part of the magic of this ancient land. Forgotten magic now, but still as strong as ever it was. The creature of air and darkness was a little afraid of it. Of the big green and gray mountain to the south, of the spirit voices in the rocks themselves, singing songs in their own tongue. But he was strengthened by it too. This was his master’s place, and therefore Áed had a place here too. They were owned by this land, a part of its slow dance, just as it was a part of them.

It accepted them. But Áed could see that his young master did not accept it. Not yet. He might never. Humans were like that, sometimes. His master’s ancestor had had the key to Faerie in his hand, and had still turned his back on a life of endless plenty and feasting, dancing, riding and womanizing with Finvarra’s host, for the hardships and privations of this distant land.

Áed sat at his master’s feet and kicked his heels, drinking in the strangeness, the beauty and the power of the place he found himself in. Time meant little to him.