The field is full of flowers.
None of those words is a lie, but they’re not true either, because they’re too small, too inadequate, too little to describe the field, its fullness, the flowers.
The sea of flowers stretches away as far as the eye can see in every direction, the most glorious carpet in the world. It undulates up the gentle curves of the rolling hills and down again, an ocean of every colour you can imagine. It’s like looking at one of those magic eye things, where if you stare at it long enough, a new picture will emerge, a dog or a pony or a house.
It’s overwhelming. There are so many flowers, so many colours, and if I lay down right here they would close over me. It would be like being put to bed under the loveliest quilt in the world. Lie down, precious Pearl, my mother’s voice would whisper. I’ll tuck you in.
I would lie down, and I would close my eyes, and the flowers would grow around me. They would grow through the gaps in my fingers and toes, the crooks of my joints, petals brushing my skin like the gentlest fingers. Flowers would grow out of my mouth and eyes and ears and I would melt away, and then there would be nothing, just a field full of flowers, gently waving in the breeze.
‘Hey, Linford,’ he says.
For a moment, I don’t remember his name. I can only think of the flowers, and I’m tired, so tired, and I just want my mother to put me to bed.
But then his fingers brush against the side of my face, and . . .
Finn Blacklin has always had magic hands.
I clutch at his wrist, keep his palm pressed against my skin. ‘Don’t let go. The flowers are going to eat me.’
‘I know. Just a moment longer.’
‘Finn, no,’ I insist. ‘Listen. They’re eating me.’
‘I need you to understand.’
His voice sounds faraway, distant. I grab at his other arm, try to press as much of my skin to his as possible. If I let go, I’m going to sink backwards into the flowers, and they’re going to swallow me whole, and –
‘It’s all right,’ he says.
We’re in his bedroom. It’s night, the starlight filtering white and silver through the curtains, glinting off his soccer trophies, casting lines across the neat stacks of paper on his desk. The awful, wonderful smell of the flowers is gone, replaced by the simpler smell of clean laundry.
I turn around. The bed’s made.
‘Finn,’ I begin.
‘I’m sorry,’ he says. ‘For hacking into your dreams again.’
‘Don’t apologise,’ I say. ‘You have no idea how much I need to see you right now.’
I reach for him, wrap my arms around him, press the length of my body against the length of his. His arms go around me too, tight. His breath is ragged, uneven, damp, against my hair.
He’s crying, I realise. Finn’s crying.
‘It’s okay,’ I say, brushing a tear off his cheekbone, perfect and angular in the moonlight.
‘No, it’s not,’ he says. ‘It’s really, really not.’
‘No, it’s not,’ I agree. ‘But I’m here. You’re here.’
I kiss him. I can taste his tears, wet against his lips – not salty, like a normal person’s would be, but sweet.
‘I love you so much,’ he says raggedly.
‘I love you too,’ I say, kissing him again, and again, and again. ‘And I meant what I said last time, Finn. I’m coming to get you. I’m going to find a way, and I’m going to come and get you.’
‘No, Linford.’ His voice isn’t more than a whisper.
‘Yes,’ I insist.
He pulls back, and the loss of his body against mine feels like I’ve been thrown into a well, dark and bottomless. ‘No,’ he says. ‘You can’t.’
Unease slithers around me like a boa constrictor, squeezing and squeezing.
‘I needed you to see the flowers,’ he says. ‘I needed you to smell them. I needed you to feel what they could do. Because they’re real. They’re here. And they’ll kill you. This whole place will kill you.’
His voice catches, and he sinks down on his perfectly made bed, head slumping low.
I sit beside him. I reach over and take one of his hands. I expect him to pull away, but instead, he holds on tight, so tight I can feel my bones grinding together. ‘What happened, Finn?’ I ask.
‘I’ve been trying to find the other kids,’ he says. ‘Your sister. The kids they took for Cardy and Marie. I thought – I don’t know what I thought I could do for them. Something. Anything.’
A tendril of guilt snakes through me. I’ve barely even thought about my sister.
‘I tried to be discreet about it,’ he says, ‘but everything I say, everything I do, every little move I make . . . he finds out about it somehow. It’s like the trees have ears, and the sky, and the wind, and the stars.’
Involuntarily, my eyes flicker to the closed bedroom door.
Could someone follow Finn? Could they walk right into my brain? Could they – could the prince –
‘My brother brought me out to that field with the flowers,’ Finn says, looking at the floor, not noticing my freak-out. ‘He said he wanted to show me something.’
He sighs and runs his free hand through his hair. ‘I knew it was stupid, but I was hopeful. Just a bit. Hopeful that now I was here – now I was finally where he wanted me to be –
that he’d cut me some slack. That he’d . . . I don’t know, throw me a bone, and at least let me see that your sister and the other kids were all right.’
I press his hand to my lips and kiss his knuckles one by one, mostly so I don’t have to say, ‘Yes, Finn, you are correct, that was stupid.’
‘But it wasn’t just him and me,’ Finn says. ‘When we got there – to the flowers – there was this friend of his waiting for us. Or maybe not a friend. I don’t know if he has those. An acquaintance. A colleague. A minion. Something. Another fairy, anyway – this guy they call the Green Man. And he’d brought his – his pet.’
‘One of us? A human?’
He nods. ‘Rhymer, the Green Man called him. The kid they took for Cardy.’
The boa constrictor tightens its grip around my throat.
‘Apparently he’s a bit of a shit-stirrer,’ Finn says. ‘From what I could find out, he’s – he doesn’t look that much like Cardy – beyond the colour of his skin, anyway – but he’s smart like him, you know? He’s always finding loopholes in the orders they give him, and – but – not this time. He couldn’t this time.’
His voice catches. ‘They told him to run into the middle of the field. He said no. But then the Green Man commanded him, and – and he had to.’
‘Is he . . .?’ I can’t bring myself to say the word.
‘He would have been, if I hadn’t been there,’ Finn says. ‘I tried to go after him, but my brother held me back, and he’s more powerful than me, Pearl. There was nothing I could do. Eventually, when he let me go, I sprinted out there and I threw Rhymer over my shoulder and I got him out and he was barely even breathing, but I – you know, I got him going again, and I was so relieved, and then . . . I looked up, and there was my brother. Grinning at me.’
‘He thought it was funny, didn’t he.’
It’s a statement, not a question.
Finn nods. ‘He thought it was hilarious.’
Tears bead in his eyes again, fall down his cheeks. The next breath that escapes him is a sob, and he pulls me to him, buries his face in my shoulder.
I stroke his hair. ‘Is Rhymer all right?’ I ask.
He nods. ‘I – I healed him in time,’ he chokes. ‘Just in time – just in time – if it had been any longer – he would have died, Pearl, and I can’t bring back the dead, I can’t.’
‘Shhhh,’ I soothe, pressing my mouth to the top of his head. ‘It’s okay. He’s okay. You saved him. And when I come for you, Finn, I’m coming for them too, for Rhymer and my sister and the girl they took for Marie. It’ll all be okay.’
He pulls back. Takes my face between both his hands. Kisses me hard, hungrily, longingly.
Then he shakes his head.
‘No, Linford,’ he says.
‘You can’t come here,’ he says. ‘Because I can’t bring back the dead.’
The boa constrictor tightens around me. I can’t breathe.
I know what he’s going to say, and every organ in me is being crushed, and there’s no air in my throat, no way I can speak to tell him no.
‘There are so many things in this place that could kill you,’ he whispers. ‘Even the flowers – even the flowers are poisonous. You can’t come here. This place – this land – it’ll eat you alive.’
‘I’ll find a way,’ I manage to say. ‘I need you, Finn. I need you here, with me.’
‘I need you too. God, Linford, you have no idea how much I need you. I feel like I’m drowning, and you’re the only thing I have to hold onto.’
‘Then hold on,’ I say, my teeth gritted so that blood and muscle and bone don’t come pouring of my mouth, forced out by the ever-tightening bands of iron around my chest. ‘Don’t you dare –’
‘I have to,’ he says, leaning his forehead against mine. ‘I have to let you go.’
‘Over my dead body,’ I’ve said, before I’ve realised what a spectacularly awful choice of words that is.
‘I can’t put you in danger. If something happened to you, it would destroy me.’
‘Things are already happening to me!’ I say. ‘You don’t have the monopoly on being in the middle of a shitstorm, Finn. You’re not the only one who feels like they’re drowning. You’re my boyfriend, and I love you, and I need you here, because the thought of you is the only thing keeping my head above water, and you’re not getting out of it by pulling some big self-sacrificing hero move!’
‘I don’t have a choice!’
‘There’s always a choice! Are you going to give up, or are you going to fight?’
‘You know what happens in fights? People get killed! And the people that survive have to live with that, and –’
‘There is a way into fairyland, and I’m going to find it,’ I say. ‘There’s a way through fairyland, and I’m going to find that too. I said I was coming to get you, and you’re not going to make a liar of me, Finn.’
‘The only way into fairyland is through my brother,’ Finn says. ‘He’s the only one that can open and close the doors. And even if you could find a way to make him do it, you’d die, Pearl. And I – please don’t do that to me.’
He’s crying again. He’s gripping my hand so tightly that I think he’s cut off my circulation, and when he kisses me, it’s hard, desperate.
‘I love you,’ he says. ‘So much, Linford.’
‘You can’t stop me saving you,’ I say.
‘No, Pearl,’ he says. ‘You can’t.’
‘I can’t let you.’
‘You can’t stop me.’
Finn pulls back, and the look in his eyes . . .
I’ve never seen anything like the look in his eyes, not on his face.
It’s the look you get when you go to the hospital to see someone’s who’s dying but who doesn’t know it. ‘I’ll be out of here in a few days,’ they say, and you smile at them, but the smile doesn’t reach your eyes.
It’s the look you get when you take a dog to the vet to get put down, and they nudge your hand with their nose and lick your hand and it feels like someone’s wrapped their hand around your throat and started squeezing.
It’s the look you get when your heart is breaking and you’re going to break it yourself.
‘I can stop you,’ he says.
‘Don’t,’ I say. ‘Don’t you dare, Finn.’
‘Pearl,’ he says, and there’s an edge of command in his voice, a note that must be obeyed. ‘You can’t come here. You won’t come here. You’ll live your life, and you’ll stop looking for me.’
The slap rings out, a harsh discordant note in the perfect summer night. My hand stings, and I feel the reverberations of it up my arm.
The light is dim – there’s only the starlight and moonlight filtering in through the window – but it’s enough for me to see the red mark my left hand has left on Finn’s face.
‘Finn,’ I say, ‘you can’t tell me what to do.’