Excerpt

Bayou Fairy Tale

Chapter 1:

A Very Merry Unbirthday

Chapter 1: A Very Merry Unbirthday

Into Darkness….

 

THE BLISTERING cold assaulted his skin. Naked and afraid, he shivered in the darkness. The wind screamed and scraped against his raw back, threatening to swallow him into the rabbit hole he had climbed out of.

“Hello?” he howled into the torrent. His bones rattled from the cold.

His teeth chattering was his only answer.

“Hey!” he yelled again.

Overhead, thunder boomed in reply.

His pulse quickened, and his face flushed with a clammy sweat. He had to get out. He couldn’t stay here.

His heart hammered, and his joints creaked like warping knife blades, squealing and sharp.

He’d die here. The realization came with another clap of thunder.

He turned from the wind and ran blindly into the dark. His bare feet sank into wet mud that mashed between his toes.

“Hey?” he called out desperately into the darkness. “Hey!”

His chest clenched against the cold as he struggled for breath. The panic came just as unrelenting as the hailstone right between his shoulder blades. He toppled forward, sliding through the thick muddy gravel. Giving up wasn’t an option. But the tempest overhead seemed to disagree.

He had once heard, when one cannot run, they walk. When one cannot walk, they crawl. And crawl he did. He would not lose himself in the storm. The rain, ice, and hail wouldn’t conquer him.

As he scrambled over the sludge, the hail pelted into the mud, exploding like cannon fire. He had to get out. There had to be an end to this. There had to be!

He flailed forward for a grip, and his hand fumbled over a wet, pebbly wall. After clambering to his feet, he felt blindly along the surface, hoping for a way around. His bones throbbed, and his fingers burned from his blood freezing in his veins.

Coughing, he concentrated on exploring the wall’s texture. A blinding flash of lightning maliciously pointed out his predicament….

He had never escaped the rabbit hole after all.

 

Into Dawn….

HE GASPED a choking breath and then coughed twice. He lay still, confused by the soft warmth of a bed at his back and the distant smell of pumpkin pie and bacon.

Was that bacon?

How do pumpkin and bacon go together? He didn’t understand.

He heard the giddy whisper of a young man. “Someone’s waking up….”

“I think my frittata’s burning,” said another man—this time an older, more grizzled tone.

“Hold on!” the young man whispered urgently. “I’ll need you here for a few more minutes.”

The older man let out an exasperated sigh. “Here. Just let me inch that damned book over in pinky-touching range. It’s your own damned fault you can’t touch it.”

“How the hell is that my fault?” the young man said, sounding irritated. “I’m a fucking princess. I can’t touch dark magic. You know that.”

“Oh, you touch a lot more than dark magic, if you know what I mean,” the older man said sarcastically. Was there some innuendo? Something about the banter was familiar. Comforting.

He feigned sleep as he felt something hard nudge his fingertips. Perhaps that was the book the old man mentioned? His wrists itched, and he ventured the slightest of peeks through his eyelashes only to find himself tied to the bed, with sparkling pink garland.

What. The. Fuck?

He thought it over. The garland could be easily broken with a flick of the wrist. The young guy sounded maybe late twenties. The tone, however, suggested he was somewhat small. Perhaps slight. What’s with the princess thing? The older guy was hard to get a bead on. His voice gave away he was a big bear of a guy, but there weren’t footsteps to suggest his weight, or where he was.

The sheets at his back had been laundered with lavender-scented detergent. Covering him was an electric blanket set to a cozy temperature, mingled into a sandwich with other fuzzy blankets. The pillow was the perfect mix of down and cotton stuffing, and smelled of primrose. Someone had taken the time to see to his comfort. The garland? Puzzling.

And then there was the pumpkin pie and bacon. And the old man mentioned a frittata. Cooking a frittata indicates you needed patience and time to prepare. You didn’t cook a frittata when holding someone hostage. Was he a hostage? He was tied up. In garland. But garland couldn’t even hold a disgruntled housecat hostage.

He decided to chance it and slowly open his eyes….

A young man grinned over him with barely restrained excitement. That was a good sign. Or so he thought. The young man had long dark hair, styled into a ragged ponytail, and wore a sparkling pink party hat topped with a silver puffball.

Okay. The party hat was one thing. But holy shit, were the guy’s eyes pink? And where was the old guy?

A quick glance to the left, and he found him. He was old for sure, with bushy gray-blond hair and a shaggy goatee. But not big. More like the size of a tubby tabby, who hovered in the air via enormous glittering pink butterfly wings.

What was with all the pink? He was more confused by the pink than a little old man with wings. Somehow that seemed acceptable.

The nightmare of the tempest and the rabbit hole put a whole new perspective on what was believable. Was he at the bottom of the rabbit hole? Did he go so far down that he ended up in some new world altogether? Whatever it was, this was nice. He would do anything not to go back to that icy hell.

“Happy birthday!” they shouted in unison and then blew noisemakers. The winged man threw multicolored confetti.

“B’rdeh…?” he finally asked and then swallowed. He didn’t sound like them. The young guy’s accent had an upper-crust Southern twang. He, on the other hand, was more Deep South with something else. French? Haitian? Creole? Creole, he decided.

As they watched, he took a quick scan of the quaint bedroom. Warm wooden walls, a TV in the corner, an open window looking out onto a lake with tall pines in a sunny morning. A banner hung across from him, reading “Happy Birthday!” with smiley faces on each end of the lettering. Was it his birthday? Maybe? He drew a blank. Was this a trick of the rabbit hole? He tried to keep his composure. These two seemed kind, and he wanted to play it cool until something suggested otherwise.

The décor wasn’t to a guy’s taste. It wasn’t his, that’s for sure. The colors and fabrics indicated a feminine touch, or at least someone who knew something about interior design. Was there someone else here? A handful of framed pictures with him and the young man together hung on the walls in a tidy arrangement. They looked happy in each other’s arms.

In one photo they posed in front of a donut shop boasting a gigantic fiberglass donut on top painted with the name Randy’s Donuts. And another photo of him carrying the young man over the threshold of a concrete teepee, the sign reading The Wigwam Motel. There were others, from the World’s Largest Pancake Bake-Off, to Biosphere II, to the Corn Palace. He blinked. They seemed to have a rather wacky sense of fun. They both looked happy, and the way they looked at each other in the photos told him how deeply in love they were.

They were lovers? He glanced to the young man again, and he smiled eagerly. He moistened his bottom lip with the tip of his tongue.

His stomach clenched with slight arousal.

Oh. Well. Maybe?

He cleared his throat and then averted his gaze, trying to hide the flush in his cheeks.

All the while the young man remained silent, seeming to wait for him to get his bearings and make his own decisions.

Their gazes met again. He swallowed with the realization that he hadn’t imagined the pink eyes.

“Your eyes are pink,” he finally said, despite sounding slightly unsure.

The young man gave a slight shrug and a grin. “I know. Weird, right?”

A kitchen timer buzzed through the silence, and the old winged man jolted. “Okay. My frittata is totally burning.” He fluttered off in a drunken curlicue path into the kitchen. “I’ll let you kids get reacquainted. Don’t forget you have work in an hour, boyo,” he called behind him.

The young man snorted. “There’s a lot you can do in an hour!”

“Yeah, yeah,” the little man said. “Like catch up on those two weeks of Survivor we missed.”

Before he could say anything, the young man puffed a sigh that seemed like humored impatience. “It’s like living with your dad and an obnoxious roommate all in one.”

Okay. This rabbit hole of absurdity was getting far too deep. Was he still asleep? This dream was strangely appealing. The young man was kind of cute. He didn’t seem like a threat.

“I’m sorry,” he said slowly to the young man. “But… um… I’m tied up in garland for some reason.”

The young man tilted his head with a sly smile. “You like it?”

“Am I supposed to?” he asked. “It seems we—” He tried to find the words, but the more he watched the young man, the more his cheeks heated. “—seem to enjoy each other’s company.” He bit his lip, and his stomach clenched at the admission. “Is the garland—”

“A kinky thing?” the young man asked as he reached out and traced circles across his chest. The young man’s touch made him shiver.

“I’d say calling yourself a princess is a kinky thing,” he said with a smirk.

The young man gave an incredulous expression. “But I am a princess.” He pointed to his party hat. “See my princess hat?” He made a smug grin. The humor of the situation brought much-needed comfort from the rabbit hole nightmare. He liked this young man, and the little old man with the wings seemed okay too. If this was a dream, it was reaching levels of being too real. He could feel, smell, and even read not only the happy birthday banner, but the tags on the pictures. He read them again to make sure the letters didn’t dissolve into squiggles, or the pictures didn’t turn blank.

No. They still stayed vibrant, and he could still read. Was this real?

The young man ran his teeth over his bottom lip.

His mouth ran dry. Something about that young man’s mouth begged to be touched. If they were lovers, why couldn’t he remember his name? Moreover, why couldn’t he remember his own? This had to be a trick of his nightmare. His heart thumped. He swallowed again. The panic bubbled in his stomach.

Everything was too nice. Too safe. Too perfect. None of it was real. It couldn’t be real.

The young man, eyes rounded in fear, seemed to sense his panic. Reaching out toward one of his garland-bound hands, the young man said, “I’m going to untie you, okay?”

He nodded without a word.

“The book is right next to you. You need to read it. It’ll explain everything.”

“Book?” he asked. He glanced to his right and found what the young man seemed to think qualified as a book.

A monstrous stack of composition notebooks duct-taped together sat next to his hand. Covered with stickers, from biohazard symbols, to a girlish cartoon cat, to flowers, to… a rhinestone sticker of a tiara? What was with the tiara? Tabs of every color of the rainbow had been pasted into the pages, and a mishmash of papers stuck out, making the strange tome unable to close without the aid of a bungee cord. There were even little sparkly things that looked like party favors. And was that bits of yarn and colorful tags off clothing?

He didn’t understand how, but he knew the weird journal of mementos was his.

The young man untied him, stepped away from the bed, folded his hands, and waited in silence.

He nodded his thanks and then sat up as he slipped the book into his lap. He snorted a laugh. “This thing is twenty pounds of paper easy. It’s going to take me a while to read this.” He smirked at the young man, gauging his reaction.

The young man gave an impish smirk of his own. “Don’t worry,” he said. “You’re a speed reader.”

He arched a brow. The young man who called himself a princess seemed to trust him. And for now, he trusted him as well.

The first thing that caught his attention when he opened the mishmash of notebooks was the chicken-scratch handwriting. Names, numbers, and details—from physical features, to what was said, to who said it—hastily scrawled over the paper with accompanying minimaps scribbled into the margins. Every space of the pages was filled. Every space. And when there wasn’t, the spaces between the previously written letters had to do.

None of it made sense. The paper was practically illegible. Sets of notes all written in different colors of ink. And then rents in the paper where the ink was running out. Smears from fingertips. Coffee rings. Strange splatters ranging from brown to pink. What was with the pink?

He swallowed. It looked like notes from a madman whose purpose was to document everything in the world, down to when he last took a shit. He assumed that was in the mess of scrawls somewhere. But when he relaxed his eyes, words shifted up from the noise of multicolored pen scribbles and rose to the surface.

His name is Taylor, he read. Taylor Hatfield. You love him. He makes you good.

Makes him good? Who was he that he needed to be made “good”?

He glanced up at the young man and then at the pictures on the wall. He presumed the young man was this so-called Taylor.

“How’s it going in there?” the little winged man called out. “The bacon’s getting cold. I might have to make the sacrifice to eat it all.”

The young man—Taylor, his name was Taylor—pulled a huffy frown. “You better not.”

Meanwhile, he sat back and listened to the banter while pretending to study the strange book.

“You need to touch the words,” the young man—Taylor—instructed him as he pointed to the book. “It only works when you touch the words.”

He nodded mutely. Sure, the odd collection of books was easily twenty pounds of paper, but he was willing to believe it wasn’t something terrible.

As soon as his fingertip touched the page, his world imploded.

 

Into the Woods…

HE GASPED for breath, clutching his chest. As his breath returned, he found himself lying on a soft patch of moss. A lush tree canopy swayed gently overhead. He slowly got to his feet and again noticed his nudity. He frowned. Did he never get out of the rabbit hole? Or did the nightmare keep going? He wanted to go back to the bedroom with Taylor and the little winged man. But now he was here in this strange forest that was far too green to be real.

He snapped off a twig, and the cool dew ran over his fingers. After a casual sniff, he noted the distinct freshness of chlorophyll. This was real. It was all real. But was all of it real? The rabbit hole? The bedroom? And now this… enchanted forest?

A campfire crackled and popped nearby. Instead of running from it, he followed the sound.

The mossy ground was soft and warm against his feet. In the distance, birds cawed to one another. A fox perked up from the bushes and then sank back into the greenery again.

He fanned his fingers, letting the verdant leaves and soft petals slip through his touch. The campfire was close, as he could see the smoke rising over a circle of large stones. He skipped over a downed log lying over a bubbling stream and slipped between the boulders.

As he came upon the fire, he hesitated at the sight of the fire’s keeper.

Himself.

His heart thumped as he watched his doppelganger use a long hunting knife to casually peel an apple in long curls of red. He wasn’t him. He couldn’t be. Was this another trick?

His double—with the sandy brown hair, faded Levis, and leather jacket—smiled at him. His dark eyes glinted at something he didn’t have.

Knowledge.

“Good morning, starshine,” he said in that distinct Creole drawl. He pushed the knife through the apple in a wet, slurping cut and snapped off the piece. “Want some?” he asked, holding it out.

“No… thanks,” he said slowly, trying to put it all together. “You’re me?” It seemed like a huge leap in logic, but anything could happen by this point, he assumed. He turned in a slow circle as he looked up to the tree canopy. “I’ve been having the weirdest day.” He looked back to his double. “Or at least I think it was a day.”

“You went down the rabbit hole again,” his double said, then popped the apple slice into his mouth.

The hair on the back of his neck rose. “You know it?”

“Of course I know it. I’m you. Or specifically, your journal.” He swept an overdramatic bow. “Welcome to a new week, Corentin. If you’re talking to me, it’s the morning of day seven.”

“Corentin?” he asked. “That’s me?”

“Us, I suppose,” his double said, then shrugged. He gestured toward a stone, only for it to crumble and dissolve into ash on a breeze to reveal a sprawling footpath vanishing into the forest. “Let’s take a walk.”

Corentin nodded and fell in step. “What is this place?”

His double glanced up to the canopy. “It’s yours. You can call it what you’d like. Enchanted Forest seems fitting. After all, you are an Enchant.”

Corentin blinked, a question on the tip of his tongue, until his double held up the knife as a deterrent.

“Hold on, I’m getting to that part,” his double said, and the look in his eye suggested Corentin should listen instead of speak. The knife was also an excellent tool to indicate whose turn it was to take the floor. His double had it, and therefore, all the floor he wanted. “So, you know those fairy tales you were told as a kid? Snow White? Sleeping Beauty? Hansel and Gretel?”

Corentin arched a brow and quirked his lip. He gave a slight shake of the head.

His double scowled. “They’re real.”

“Oh. Kay.” Corentin pressed his lips together in a thin line and followed along. “That guy said he was a princess. His name is Taylor, right?”

His twin snorted a guffaw. “Ah yes, the Fair Princess Taylor.” He sliced off a bit of apple and held the piece to the knife with his thumb. “We are so getting ahead of everything here. One step at a time.”

Corentin nodded and made sure to pay attention to his surroundings. The green leaves, the intense color of the flower petals, and the blue of the sky—it looked like something out of a Disney movie. Picturesque. Flawless.

“Ah. You’re getting it,” his twin said. And when Corentin shook his head, his twin explained, “You’re remembering. You know who Disney is.”

The Enchanted Forest was curious, yet comforting, and possibly dangerous? He wasn’t sure. He went with his gut to trust his twin, despite something about being in his company not seeming right.

“You always think I’m weird,” his twin said.

Corentin stiffened. “I didn’t say—”

“You don’t need to,” his twin said. “I’m your journal, after all. You’re sitting in a cozy bed, in a cute little house that has fucking window treatments, and even a sweet Keurig. Right now, I’m in your lap, and you’re staring off into space as you absorb everything I have to tell you. You always think this part is weird.” He rolled his shoulders with a sigh and then shrugged. “You think the rabbit hole is ooh scary, and you think meeting me is weird.”

Corentin crossed his arms. “Weird bad or weird good?”

“Depends on the day you make a note about it. Some days you go out on a high, some days you can’t wait for it to be over.”

“You said this was the seventh day?” Corentin asked. “What happens on the seventh day?”

“You fall into the rabbit hole, and then you come here. You meet me, and we have a chat. I’m all of your notes to yourself. I’m you talking to yourself. I tell you who you are, where you’ve been, and your life until the moment you fell down the rabbit hole.” He pointed to Corentin’s tattooed arm with the knife. “The tattoo keeps track of the days.”

At the subconscious suggestion, Corentin held up his left arm. He inspected the delicate linework illustrating the tree. It started at a snarl of roots around his wrist, then went up his arm, and finally branched off into seven windblown leafy boughs.

His double tossed the apple core away. “One by one, the branches lose the leaves each day. It feels somewhere a cross between being hit with a sack full of doorknobs and a freight train filled with sacks full of doorknobs. Pleasant stuff.”

Corentin’s ears perked when he caught the sound of birds cawing overhead. And in a blink, they sat upon the rocky beach shores of somewhere else. In the distance, the gray tides rolled in a whisper, crested, and then sucked back into the fold again.

“How did we…?” he asked and then waved it off. “Never mind.” He knew it wouldn’t do to ask.

His twin struck a match, then cast it into a pile of driftwood and dried seaweed between them. The wood took to the flame in less than a second, and both Corentin and his twin crouched before it, warming their hands.

“Your name is Henri Corentin Devereaux,” his twin told the fire. “You go by your middle name because it’s Creole tradition.” He smirked. “Also, you definitely don’t look like a Henri. Your age is undefined because you seemed to fail at making a note of it. Your driver’s license says you were born in 1967, which puts you at forty-nine. But you’re not forty-nine, and you’re not Corentin Devereaux.”

Corentin straightened with the jolt of information. “What the fuck are you—”

With a glimmer of silver, his twin brandished the knife, and Corentin swallowed. “My turn to talk,” his twin said. “You’re an Enchant. Your ancestors were Hansel and the child-eating Enchantress who owned the swank gingerbread house. She charmed Hansel, and Hansel in turn joined the Enchantress in a tasty buffet made of his sister, Gretel. The tattoo is the spirit of the tree that stood outside the gingerbread house that slowly died as the Enchantress cooked her.” Their eyes met, and his double seemed to be gauging his reaction. He cracked a slow, sickle curl of a smirk that set Corentin’s teeth on edge. “Regretting you left that rabbit hole, eh?”

Corentin scowled. “Keep going.”

“Walk with me,” his twin said, gesturing to the rocky beach under their feet. The lush, mossy path drew itself into a long twisting line down the shore and vanished into the mist. He smiled and jerked his chin toward the distance. “Off we go, yeah?”

Clenching his fists and checking his growing irritation, Corentin had no choice but to follow.

With a tentative step onto the path, the beach and whisper of the ocean vanished into the dark. This time a thick grove of cypress trees draped in spanish moss rose in the beach’s place. In the boggy marshes, a blue heron speared a fish and then quickly sucked it down into its gullet. On the surface of the water, the beady stare of an alligator watched them pass.

“Here’s where it gets tricky,” his double said. “Hansel knocked up the Enchantress. The Enchantress, being a witch, and Hansel, being an Enchant, produced a child that was half witch. They call these children Cronespawn. Following me?”

“Do I have a choice?” Corentin asked. His curiosity and his doubt swayed back and forth.

“You always get doubtful at this part,” his twin said and snapped his fingers inches from Corentin’s face. “Stay with me here. This is a lot to take in.”

“You’re kind of an ass, you know?” Corentin said, then gritted his teeth.

His double laughed. “We’re kind of an ass. It’s just our nature.”

“So, I’m not this Corentin guy?” Corentin asked. “What kind of name is that anyhow?”

“A pretty pompous one, if you ask me. It’s the name on your driver’s license, so it’s yours. Don’t get all up in your head when you see the picture isn’t yours. The license is likely fake anyhow. No one seems to pay attention to it.” He beamed as if he looked upon a newborn baby. “Because you have such a pretty face.”

Corentin raised his finger to indicate a thought, and his twin shook his head.

“Don’t go there,” his twin warned him.

“So the Cronespawn…?” Corentin asked, changing the subject.

“You’re one of them.” The way his twin said it, the words seemed like he was reading the verdict of criminal.

Corentin scratched at his bristly jaw as he considered. “Uh-kay,” he said through his teeth as he looked down on his twin over the tip of his nose.

His twin shoved his hands in his jacket pockets as he rocked on his heels. “You’re an Enchant, but you’re dark magic,” he said, then smiled kindly at a passing turtle in the shallows. Corentin watched him, waiting for him to go on. “As a Cronespawn, you’re a huntsman. One of the many grunt jobs associated with serving witches, evil queens, and wicked stepmothers. You don’t get to do the fun stuff like the princes and princesses do. You don’t go to balls, or parties, or coronations. You’re the one stalking the rooftops and pulling off the assassinations from above.”

Corentin recoiled as a black racer slithered between his feet. “What now?” he asked, somewhat horrified.

His twin shrugged, seeming not the least bit put off. “Balls aren’t your thing anyway. Those damned duck pâté hors d’oeuvres sit in your stomach like a brick.”

“I’m an assassin?” Corentin asked, holding out his hand as if to grasp on to any logic coming from his twin’s mouth.

His twin chuckled and then brushed a sandy brown lock behind his ear. “Hitman, contract killer, call it what you like.” He smiled wide. “Huntsman just sounds better. More romantic, don’t you think? Still, no less absolutely terrifying.” He turned his gaze downward and toed the dirt. He sucked in a long sigh with a grin. “But you quit.”

Corentin tilted his head and smiled slowly. “Because of Taylor, right?”

“Because true love always finds a way,” his twin said. His demeanor had changed. He wasn’t so much the snarky counterpart, but someone at ease with the world.

Corentin shook his head. His twin told him he was his journal—was his twin changing his demeanor as he read more? Was it because his notes to himself became happier?

“He’s kind of a brat. That’s putting it mildly. More like a raging jackass,” his double said as he looked out over the swamp. “But I think that’s a part of the princess thing.”

“But… he’s a guy,” Corentin said, arching a brow.

“And he’s a princess,” his double said flatly.

“But he’s a guy,” Corentin insisted.

His double tugged at his hair and puffed a sigh. “Work with me here.”

Corentin held out his hand in a half shrug, encouraging his double to continue while pressing his lips into a terse smile.

“Princess Taylor Hatfield is your one true love. He’s an Enchant, like you, and for some weird reason, in the last handful of decades, guys have been born princesses and women have been born princes.” His double seemed to wait, gaging Corentin’s reaction again. And when he said nothing, his double continued. “You two have been through a lot together. You saved all of the Enchants and the mundanes from Taylor’s brother, Atticus. Taylor took it pretty rough, though.” His double tilted his chin toward the pathway. “Coming?”

“Do I have a choice?” Corentin crossed his arms and then scratched at his bare bicep.

“You’re too damned curious not to.” His double grinned. What an asshole. “Ah-ah,” his double said and flipped the knife between his fingers. “You’re forgetting who has the talky knife.” He turned and walked on.

Corentin gritted his teeth and followed. “You need to stop pulling thoughts out of my head.”

The double shrugged. “It’s not me. I don’t exist. You’re talking to yourself here. I guess….” He gave a smarmy smile. “I’m your conscience. Your very own Jiminy Cricket.” He went solemn and rubbed the back of his neck. “That sounds like a fucking awful job, if you ask me.”

“So, Taylor’s brother.” Corentin met his double’s gaze. He seemed troubled. “Did I kill him?”

“Oh no!” His double snorted a laugh. “Fuck, Storyteller, no!” He fell silent, letting it hang between them. They walked on, not saying a word to each other for several long minutes. Corentin didn’t raise any questions, and his double, despite being his self-professed conscience, seemed lost in his own thoughts.

“Atticus Hatfield isn’t just any princess,” his double said softly. “He’s the princess. The Fairest of Them All, Snow White. He’s the highest of all of the princesses. All Enchants kneel in his passing. The witches tremble in fear.”

As they walked, the path became wooden flooring. Corentin glanced up as the walls of the bedroom he had woken up in built up around him. He stopped as the nails and boards clicked together, and the framed pictures rose like bas-relief sculptures from the walls. He squinted at them to get a closer look. His heart fluttered with how happy he and Taylor looked together, but his double’s demeanor suggested something was off.

“Taylor had him committed,” his double said as Corentin stared into the photo of the World’s Largest Pancake Bake-Off. “He holds on desperately that Atticus will one day return to his senses.”

There was a notable pause as his double’s demeanor changed again. Corentin blinked. Was that remorse?

“It is,” his double said, once again pulling his thoughts straight from the source. He sniffed and wiped his nose on the back of his sleeve. “Atticus’s true love, the Witchking Idi, twisted his thoughts around so many lies and too much information too fast that Atticus just….” His snapped his fingers on both hands. The gesture explained what Corentin needed to know. “Atticus and Idi were going to kill us all. We stopped Idi, but Atticus wasn’t so lucky.”

Corentin turned away from the pictures and startled at the sight on the bed. He sat there, his monstrous journal in his lap, and Taylor curled around his side like a lost kitten. The Corentin on the bed stared into space, his eyes alight with sparks of green magic. His hand slipped over the letters and notes in a maddening skipping and tapping, as if his hand moved on jerking marionette strings.

Corentin’s heart sank as he watched Taylor bear witness to this process. Something on Taylor’s face suggested his own concern about whether Corentin reading his book would work.

“Taylor loves his brother,” his double spoke up, diverting Corentin’s attention. “He loves him so much that when he gets that look in his eye, you know. There’s no mistaking it. He tamps it down. But once in a while, something will kick the memories off. He just wants Atticus to come out of it. And nothing you say ever makes him feel better. It’s his road to walk. His journey. You are not the destination of that one.”

Corentin crossed his arms. He gave up on keeping his thoughts private and said the first thing that came to mind. “This is a lot to take in.”

“You always start thinking out loud at this point.” His double seemed to appreciate the honesty.

“So where am I? Where are Taylor and I?”

“Sullivan, Maine. As far from Taylor’s family as you could get. His father and he have a hard time communicating at normal volume. His mother just stays out of it. It’s better this way. You guys retired from it all. You’re here, in the frozen wilderness, living your own happily ever after.” His double glanced over his shoulder as if he was being watched and back to Corentin. “Just between you and me, the thermostat is far too temperamental for our liking.”

“We retired?” Corentin asked.

“From saving the world,” his double said, appearing agitated. “You really need to stick with me. Is it the smell of the bacon? Ringo’s bacon is deadly.”

“Ringo?” Corentin hooked a thumb in the direction of the kitchen. “The little winged man?”

“Taylor’s fairy godfather.”

Corentin’s shoulders slumped and he ducked his head. “Of course there’s a fairy godfather.” His tone reflected his doubt. How can it possibly be this absurd? He was in a magical enchanted forest after all. Couldn’t get any worse.

“Ringo is one of your best friends. You don’t have many. You’re kind of an introvert at heart. It’s the huntsman thing. You may be outwardly charming and a smooth talker to everyone, but you keep what’s going on in your head to yourself.”

Corentin looked to the bed and at Taylor’s longing expression. There was no mistaking him waiting for Corentin to come back.

“How often do we go through this?” Corentin asked.

His double sighed. “Every seven days.”

Corentin drew in a slow breath. “How lo—”

“You’ve been like this for years. Every seven days, you forget. It’s an Enchant thing. Because your ancestors Hansel and the Enchantress made a feast of Gretel, every seven days he remembered what happened, and the Enchantress cast a spell to make him forget.” The double tilted his head, and Corentin noted him keeping his attention locked on Taylor. “Every seven days you forget everything. Him, Ringo, this house, what you are, the fact that you are a huntsman who had a change of heart. That you actually fell in love. That you found a reason to have faith again.”

“That Taylor makes me good,” Corentin said.

“Yes.”

The affirmation of his double made him shiver.

“Will it always be this way?” Corentin glanced up at his double, only to find nothing. He blinked again, and found himself in the bed, journal in his lap, and Taylor curled next to him. He opened his mouth and then closed it, unsure of what to say.

Instead, Taylor smiled with warmth and a contentment that made Corentin’s dread vanish. Taylor blew into a noisemaker, and the unrolling paper of the party favor tickled at Corentin’s shoulder.

“Happy birthday,” Taylor whispered and shifted to lay his head in the crook of Corentin’s shoulder and chin.

“Yeah…,” Corentin whispered, puzzling through all of his new information. He swallowed. Taylor shouldn’t see him afraid, he decided. Instead, he chuckled and kissed the top of Taylor’s head. “It’s not my birthday, is it?”