Just after dusk, Carmen sneaked out to visit her favorite Bellingham secret for the last time.
She wished her family didn't have to move in with her grandparents in Ellensburg, that the bank would just give her father time to find a new job instead of foreclosing on their house. She didn't want to switch high schools or leave the sea.
In the estuary where Padden Creek crosses under Harris Avenue, the amber glow of the streetlights attracted flying insects. Every summer, Carmen walked there at night to watch the bats feed. She would miss the way they scrawled through the air, writing loopy poetry with their wings.
One of the bats ended its poem by spiraling into the gravel near her feet. Startled, Carmen crouched to make sure it was OK; she'd never seen one so clumsy. But after a moment, she realized it wasn't a bat.
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It had a human face and a smooth body, like a gray doll. Its ears and wings were burnt with crisp-edged holes. She was incredulous when it spoke, but its tiny lips moved in time to the tinny voice.
"Are you with the Fire Queen?" it asked.
"I don't understand," she whispered. It seemed rude to speak too loudly when the creature's voice was so faint. She added, "Are you a fairy?"
"I suppose." The bat-fairy coughed.
Carmen was alarmed to see a bleeding wound on its throat. She worried for the bat-fairy even as she wondered whether she was hallucinating, the victim of a reality-TV prank, or something else.
"Let me get you cleaned up," Carmen said. She wasn't sure how first aid would work on a fairy, but she would try.
"No time," the bat-fairy wheezed. "You'll do as my replacement. The guardians are asleep, but she's coming. Take the diamond key ... down the poison road, past the old factory. Acerbus lives in the dead forest under the first bridge."
The bat-fairy shifted one wing, revealing a key clutched in its toes. Carmen took it and held it up to the light. It had been carved from a solid chunk of diamond.
"Don't lose it," the bat-fairy whispered. "Go, now. Acerbus will threaten you, but the key ..."
The bat-fairy was still.
Carmen stood in the silence and wondered if she'd gone nuts. A key the length of a peach pit still glittered in her palm, though. It must be worth at least another couple months of her parents' mortgage, if she sold it.
No. She wasn't going to stay by stealing, at least not if she could find the key's rightful owner. The bat-fairy's cryptic directions didn't make sense, though. Poison road? Dead forest?
A warm wind smelling of wood smoke and wet copper fluttered Carmen's hair. All of the insects and bats had disappeared. Worried, she looked toward Fairhaven, in case there was a fire.
Dervishes of sparks and smoke poured down the hill along Harris Avenue. Their tendrils formed long, clawed limbs; their gaping grins held incandescent teeth.
Carmen ran toward the boat launch. Whatever was happening, she guessed it was safer in the bay. The wind was hot against the back of her neck. Her pursuers crackled like brush fires.
She wasn't going to make it. They were too fast. She stumbled up over the train tracks. Behind her, the crackling changed to the buzz of a swarm of angry wasps. The wind ceased.
She glanced over her shoulder to find the fire-creatures scrabbling at the air just beyond the tracks, as if there were an invisible wall. Carmen suddenly remembered that in all the old stories, fairies hated iron. Poison. They couldn't cross the rails.
She wasn't going to test it, however. She ran down the tracks until she was sweating and had a stitch in her side. The buzzing faded, but she still smelled ashes on the wind.
This was impossible. She couldn't go home - what if those things followed her to her family?
She was going to get some answers from this Acerbus character, that was for sure. She followed the tracks, but by the time she reached the bridge over Whatcom Creek she felt foolish. She'd passed the old factory and hadn't seen anyone waiting to take the key.
No sooner had Carmen's feet hit the pavement than she heard a voice.
"It's a good thing I'm only interested in your looks," the voice said. "If I was shallow, I'd probably care that you smell like a dirty gym sock."
She whirled to find a young man perched on the concrete divider. He posed like he knew he was beautiful, even while wearing a stained hoodie and tattered jeans. Just what she'd expect from someone who lived among the beams under a bridge - a forest of dead trees.
He grinned. Each of his hundred teeth was as sharp as a shark's.
Next Monday: Who is Acerbus?
ABOUT THIS SERIAL NOVEL
Welcome to "Invitation to the Fire Ball," a six-part serial fantasy written by Whatcom County residents.
The fantasy runs July 16 through Aug. 20, with a new chapter in each Monday's edition of The Bellingham Herald. Other chapters are here.
Next January, we will invite readers to write chapters for our 2013 serial story. For now, we hope you enjoy "Invitation to the Fire Ball." Send any comments to Dean.Kahn@bellinghamherald.com.