Griselda puffed into being in a cloud that smelled vaguely of baked goods. Years of experience had taught her that children were more inclined to trust people who smelled of wholesome things. She fanned her butterfly wings, a recent addition to the costume. She could fly very well without them, but in this post-Disney world, well, certain terms just brought certain expectations.
Jacob Fremont lived in a brightly painted house on a cul-de-sac teeming with other children. Yet he was friendless and alone. Griselda looked over a yard abnormally neat and empty of toys.
Jacob, like any other child, had his share of sadness. She’d read it. At three, Jacob had fallen and hit his head so severely they thought he’d have learning disabilities. He’d recovered from it, but then at six his baby brother had died. Fallen into the lake where their family had been staying.
Griselda sighed. She often saw it. Children didn’t need magic so much as positive reenforcement. The other godmothers had rolled their eyes at all the pop psychology books, but Griselda could see the change coming over the children of this generation from a mile away. The woes of today were less forced labor by your family and more societal ennui.
What she would do, Griselda thought idly as she hovered over the house, is implement a regimen of activity. Get the endorphins flowing before addressing the deep-seated issues.
A boy that had to be Jacob was standing in the side-yard, next to an air conditioning unit. He did not seem to be hiding from anyone, yet he was concealed by the structure. He stood stock still and looked off into the middle distance. Griselda pasted a bright smile on her face. She’d mastered appearing so much that she could make it seem like a sunbeam spontaneously split into a rainbow, lighting up her dress and hair with color.
“Hello Jacob,” she said, bearing a look of wistful gentleness.
The boy did not react like any child ever had. He didn’t react. He simply looked up as if she were a low-flying bird that had hit the roof.
“Hello,” he said. His lower lids were droopy and showed an unusual amount of white beneath his iris.
“I’m Griselda, your fairy godmother,” she breathed, trying to channel maternal goodness. That term was such a gross oversimplification, but it worked for what she needed.
Jacob cocked his head.
“Fairy. From ‘fair folk’?”
Griselda gave a rewarding little laugh. “Yes! What a clever little boy you are.”
“I read it in a book,” Jacob said noncommittally.
He had not once changed his demeanor since the conversation started. Griselda’s heart went out to him. He was too young to be so jaded. He needed to believe in magic as a child, because if he didn’t he wouldn’t believe in hope as an adult.
Griselda risked coming a little closer and rested her hand on his shoulder.
“Jake, I’m here to—”
“Jacob,” the boy insisted, “not Jake.”
Griselda smiled again. “Of course. I’m here to help you, Jacob. Can you think of something you need help with?”
This was most important. Most godmothers blasted in, granting wishes left and right without any thought to the big picture. If you let children talk, they would be able to tell you exactly what they needed.
Jacob looked at her hand. He didn’t blink much.
“I have English homework. One topic sentence and three supporting sentences.”
She’d been hoping for a bigger psychological revelation. Help with a bully, a parent, a pet. But it was a start.
“I can’t do your homework for you,” she teased.
The joke didn’t make a hit. “Then what can you do?”
Griselda dithered. “Oh…lots of things. I can make it rain, or make it sunny. I can make things grow, or shrink them. I can make clothes and food and—”
“Can you kill things?”
Griselda stopped. “I…can’t…” No child had ever asked her that. Even the ones being beaten by their parents hadn’t.
Jacob shrugged. “Well…”
Griselda followed him back to his room and tried to help him with the assignment. His biggest problem in English was that he didn’t quite get correlation and causation. He could write that a mouse would eat a piece of cheese, but he couldn’t tell why or what might happen after.
Griselda hung back and observed for the rest of the evening. Maybe his brother’s death had induced a streak of morbidity in him. While his parents were busy cleaning up after dinner, Jacob turned on a horror movie in the living room and watched without a trace of fear. Afterwards, Jacob took himself up to bed without asking for a goodnight kiss from either parent.
Griselda went over her notes. Perhaps the death had been so frightening it dulled his ability to feel afraid of other things? She had a sneaking suspicion he had witnessed more than was on the file.
The next day Jacob rose at six am and prepared for school. He fixed his own lunch, dressed, ate breakfast, and sat on the couch reading until his parents rose. Griselda followed him to school. Jacob was like many children, in that he only did enough work to complete assignments but did not excel. The other children tended to avoid him on the playground. Odd. He didn’t seem like a bully. She watched as he paced to the far corner of the schoolyard and pulled out a book. He liked reading. Maybe he found life so disappointing he was trying to escape it?
After school he walked himself home, paying attention to all signs and traffic lights. He was very cautious for an eight-year-old.
Once home, he shrugged off his backpack and dove straight into homework. He gave a lingering look to the English packet and set it aside.
At dinner he ate the center from his toast and only half his peas. Then he brushed his teeth for three minutes, told his parents five, and went to bed.
Griselda was left scratching her head.
Usually, fairy grandmothers were summoned for times of extreme duress. True, not all damage was external, but it seemed as if Jacob had a fairly normal life.
Grizelda decided on an observation period of a week. Just to be sure.
After three days she was ready to pack it in.
The parent’s actions when no other adult was around were usually the most telling of their parenting style. Jacob’s parents behaved more or less the same whether they were being observed by other people. Jacob’s father might make some halfhearted attempts to joke with his son, or Jacob’s mother might tease him, but either action brought the same indifference from the boy.
The only notable event didn’t look anything close to mistreatment. Jacob’s mother was in the livingroom, standing watchfully near the boy. It was something the parents did often. Suddenly, she gathered Jacob into a hug. The look on her face was expectant. Jacob didn’t move, neither to reach forward and return the hug nor to withdraw. After a moment, Jacob’s mother eased away and took his face in her hands, searching it for something. Whatever her goal, she came away disappointed.
Griselda appeared before him late one Thursday afternoon. Jacob was in the yard looking at bugs with a magnifying glass.
“Jacob,” she said.
“Griselda,” he said, as if she had just rounded the corner instead of appearing in a shower of sparkles.
Griselda watched him angle the magnifying glass. Such careful hands. Such detachment. Like a miniature scientist.
“Are you finding some good bugs?” She ventured.
Jacob grunted and nodded, finding her no more interesting a sight than anything else in the yard.
“Jacob, I had some questions for you…” she said, drifting closer. This let her see the white-hot beam emanating from the lens, let her hear the microscopic screams and pops.
Griselda gasped and knocked the glass from his hands. Jacob stared at the ant trail below him, hand open, face darkening.
“That was mine,” he said, emotion finally tinting his voice.
“Jacob, that’s horrid! Imagine those poor little ants, just rushing around on business, suddenly burnt to a crisp.”
Jacob said, “I do.”
Griselda shook her head.
“Jake, I’ve been watching you,” she said, “and I think I’ve figured out what I must do with you. I think I’m going to have to teach you empathy.”
Jacob slowly raised his head, those strange eyes with their large whites settling hot and still on her face.
“My name,” he said distinctly, “is Jacob. Not Jake.”
“I’m sorry. But you really must learn empathy.” Griselda fanned herself. “This must be the first time I’ve been called to save a child from himself. Do forgive me if I err.”
“You mean you’ll be hanging around?”
“I’ll be staying, Jacob, until I see fit to leave. We may have a lot of work ahead of us—I can only imagine what your brother’s death did to you—”
“He didn’t do anything to me,” Jacob said slowly, “not after that. Before, he put my trucks in the water. I told him no, but he did anyway. That’s why I pushed him.”
Griselda momentarily lost altitude. Her toes grazed the tips of the grass.
“Wh-what?” she asked weakly.
Jacob beckoned her over. “Want to see another secret?”
Griselda bent forward, head spinning.
Jacob had something in his front pocket, wrapped in an old handkerchief. He peeled away the layers and then suddenly lunged and pressed it against her cheek. It burned.
“Iron is deadly to fair folk,” Jacob said over the sound of Griselda’s screams, “I read that in my book.”
She tried to pull away, but it stuck to her skin and it burned and it burned and it burned
After a while Jacob’s mother came out of the house and saw the bright mess on the lawn. She spoke in a tone dismayed but not surprised.
“Oh, Jacob. Another butterfly?”