by Alison McBain
A high-pitched shriek echoed off the canyon walls.
“Relax, honey. It’s just a spider.” John brushed the offending creature off his wife’s neck. “Must have dropped down from the trees.” He laughed at her, and she hit him in the arm.
“It’s not funny!” When he continued to laugh, Andrea stepped from under the overhanging branches and onto the sunny dirt path, dumping her backpack on the ground. “I want to stop,” she said. “I’m starving.”
“Just a couple more miles to the--” He intercepted her glare. “Me too,” he corrected himself. “Starving.” Turning back to the line of boulders that blocked the leading edge of trees, he shrugged off his backpack and stretched. “Isn’t it good to get away for a few days?”
He turned suddenly, picked up Andrea and swung her around in a circle. “John!” she protested. “I was just--”
“I’m not letting you down until you say you’re glad.”
Reluctantly, she laughed. “All right, all right! I’m glad.” He put her down and kissed her forehead. When she started to turn away, he increased the pressure of his hands on her arms and she stopped trying to get away. Andrea looked down at his chest, toying with a button on his shirt, and John smoothed the hair back from the sides of her face.
“I’m sorry I’ve been away so much,” he said quietly. “We knew since I accepted the promotion--” At the thin set of her mouth, he chopped his hand through the air. “Forget it. We can talk later. Let’s just enjoy ourselves.” Her mouth moved slightly, but she didn’t look up. “Hey,” he said. He pulled her chin up with his finger and waggled his eyebrows to try to coax a reluctant smile from her. “Speaking for myself, I can’t remember the last time I felt so… invigorated.”
It didn’t get a laugh, as he’d hoped. She just looked up at him, her blue-grey eyes serious. Things had been strained lately, but he’d just finished a big case and could cut back a little at work and spend more time with her. He’d been working so hard, but now he would have more time to focus on other things.
He turned towards the trees and headed under their cool shade. “Why don’t you unpack lunch? I need to take a break.”
“Okay.” The crackle of paper bags followed him as he sidestepped around the closely-spaced trees to look for a convenient spot. When the shushing of the foliage drowned out the rustle of his wife’s activity, he stopped. Further away from the hiking trail, the trees were larger and widely spaced, so that whole sections of decaying leaves and mossy dirt were bathed in the noon sunlight. In front of a knee-high bush outlined in a patch of golden sun, John unzipped and relaxed.
“Hey!” the bush yelled and spun around, shaking off drops of moisture. The breath in John’s throat huffed out in a wordless exclamation as he jumped back, then quickly set matters right and zipped up, taking several steps back as he did so.
For a second, he saw double--a ferociously swearing bush hopping up and down, and a tiny, gnarled man wringing out his shirt. In a sparkling cloud of dust motes, the two images resolved into one--a small man clothed in a dappled green suit, unfortunately wet.
“Why don’t you watch where you do that?” the old man squealed. “Honest folk minding their own business....” The last few words were unintelligible as the man turned his back.
“Sorry,” John stammered. “I was just…” The small man paced a circle in the earth where the plant had been, no taller than the bush John had mistaken him for. “Wait. How did you do that?”
“How d’you think?” the little man snapped back. “Well, hurry up, I haven’t got all day.”
“You’ve caught me. Demand treasure from me.” John’s face must have reflected the blankness of his thoughts, because the wet man began to spit out foreign words with the guttural emphasis and litany of swearing. Finally, the words became an understandable Irish brogue. “The boys back home would laugh themselves silly. I’m a leprechaun, you eejit. If you catch me, you’re supposed to demand my treasure.”
“What?” John repeated.
The green-clad figure glared at his wet fingers, then bent over to rub them dry in a patch of dirt while he spoke. “Ask me for my treasure.”
Feeling like a kid in grade school parroting back the rote lesson, John asked: “Can I have your treasure?”
“Aha!” the small man jumped up and shook a finger at John’s face. “You’re after my treasure now, are you? Well, it’s not so easily come by.”
John felt his face grow warm. “Look, I don’t want your treasure. I’m sorry I, er, you know. But I really just want to get back to my wife--”
At the suddenly canny expression on the little man’s face, John stopped. He remembered vaguely from a folk lit class in college that leprechauns were supposed to be capricious creatures. He didn’t want to bring Andrea into the situation. He could handle it by himself. “I--ah--need to get back to my life’s work,” he finished. The awkward silence hung between them, but John bit his tongue to prevent saying more.
“Before you leave, you must first answer one question correctly,” the leprechaun said when John stayed mute.
“You will regret it for the rest of your life.”
At the words, John stopped. The small man didn’t look quite so funny now, standing there and staring after him with his black pebble eyes. John had seen such looks on the faces of criminals in court when he came to defend them--the look that dared him to find out the consequences of walking away.
The leprechaun continued when he saw John had paused. “The question you must answer is what in your life do you value most? If your answer is worth more than mine, then I will give you my greatest treasure and let you go on your way.” The little man laughed abruptly and twirled in place. His clothes looked dry now.
“Hold on. There’s nothing I want. I don’t want your stupid treasure.”
“No answer, you lose.” The small man took out a pocket watch and tapped it with one twiggy finger. “Time’s almost up.”
“Um.” John scraped the bottom of his memory for any useful info. All he ended up with a mental image of the Lucky Charms cereal character. The kids in the commercial were always trying to steal the leprechaun’s marshmallows. He doubted marshmallows were the answer, though.
The leprechaun huffed, “Go on, go on, I haven’t got all day.”
“I don’t know!” He thought about it. “Wait a minute. What happens if I lose?”
The small man smiled at him. His black eyes glinted, but he didn’t answer.
John propped his fists on his hips. “Tell you what. I make lots of money. I don’t need to play your game. So, how about you keep your treasure and I’ll keep mine?”
“Are you sure that’s your answer?” The small man stared at him.
John gave a half-wave of dismissal. “I’m not going to be forced to make an answer. I refuse. I want nothing.”
The leprechaun laughed. “You are indeed unusual for a man. You want nothing! In that case, you are free to go. As am I.” He twirled once more in place and a beam of sunlight glared off the top of his green hat and resolved into a shower of glittering dust that drifted down around him. John blinked and the man was gone, only the sparkling motes lingering in the still air.
“Thank God,” he muttered, turning to find his way back to the trail. He pushed through the bushes and trees, which snatched at his clothes and hair. “Andrea!” he called out, crashing through the foliage. “You’ll never guess what happened.”
Through the branches in front of him, he could see the outline of one of the boulders next to the trail, but there was no answer from his wife. “Andrea!” he called out as he twisted past the last tree and stumbled into the clearing.
There was no one there. Nothing except his own backpack lying on its side in the dirt. He looked down the mountainside, but his wife wasn’t visible on the trail they had spent the better part of an hour hiking up.
He eyes swept past his pack again, but then zeroed in on the front pocket. A white envelope was tucked inside. His hand shook as he pulled out the envelope in a cloud of sparkling glitter which dissipated into the air. No, he thought, seeing the leprechaun’s laughing face in his mind. No, no, no…
As he tilted the envelope, the flap fell open and a small golden ring bounced once on the dirt and rolled to a stop against his foot.
He bent down and picked up his wife’s wedding band. The letter began, “Dear John--”
About the Author
Alison McBain lives in Connecticut with several daughters, so her husband is badly outnumbered and despairs of ever seeing the inside of a bathroom during their teenage years. She has over thirty poems and short stories published in magazines and anthologies such as Flash Fiction Online, Abyss & Apex, and Frozen Fairy Tales (World Weaver Press). When not obsessing over who's going to bite the big one on The Walking Dead, she practices origami meditation and draws all over the walls of her house with the enthusiastic help of her kids. You can chat with her at @AlisonMcBain or www.alisonmcbain.com.
World's Shortest Author Interview
In a Russian accent, please explain why I can't have another glass of milk.
Ze meelk, eet haz ze lllactoze. Ze lllactoze, eet give you ze badt poopz. No meelk ford you.
If you could change one thing from your childhood, what would it be and why? (Please include the word "porpoises" in your answer.)
I'm really disappointed that I never had superpowers. How cool would it have been to fly, for example? Or control people with my mind? Or set buildings on fire? (Oh, wait, I didn't need superpowers to do that last one, when I... never mind).
Oh, yeah. Porpoises.
About the Artist
Unsplash is a Pixabay user and shutterbug.
Our very own D Chang is a designer and game writer from Austin, Texas. His short fiction has appeared in Avast, Ye Airships! and the Cryptopolis science fiction anthology. He does most of the Space Squid cover designs.