This story is by Az Kelly and was part of our 2017 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the Summer Writing Contest stories here.
To everyone else, she looked like average bus commuter Jane, on her way to work with her neatly coiffed hair and smartly fitted grey suit,brightened by the small red bag on her lap.
I squeezed myself in between her, and a young man with a stubbly scalp who was nodding into his earphones.
“Do you smell that?” I turned to the woman, wrinkling my nose at the metallic smell inside the bus. “It smells like bl…” I blinked and shook my head to clear my vision.
Like an optical illusion, my neighbor had transformed into a tiny, plainly dressed young woman. She was bawling into her lap, her grey dress wet from the huge tears rolling off her face. She held a tiny glass jar full of copper pennies, which shook and jingled with her sobs.
I glanced over my right shoulder at music guy, who was still lost in his tunes. Squeezing my eyes shut, I blinked again before turning back and against my better judgement, said the magic words.
“Are you ok?”
She stopped mid sob to stare at me with eyes that took up half her face.
“You..you can see me?” She sniffed, and poked a finger into my arm. “You’re real?”
I nudged an inch away from her.
“You can see me! are you a fairy?”
“Er, I don’t think so.” I was already regretting my decision to intervene. “I just wanted to see if you’re okay.”
“No I’m not okay at all.” She dragged her nose along a sleeve, sniffling.
“I’m stuck in this stinking tin boat with no one to help me get home.”
“But you can help me, can’t you? She flashed me a smile full of sharp, pointy ends.
“Ah. Look.. I just wanted to make sure that you’re ok.” I shuffled another inch into music man. “And you seem much better now, so…”
“But you can see me! That means the glamour doesn’t work on you!”
“Look I don’t know why I can see you, maybe it’s the red wine from last night. But you seem fine now, and..I’m getting off at the next stop so I can’t really help any further. Sorry.”
She sat back into her seat and dropped her shoulders. “But I’m stuck here. I thought you could help me?”
I let out a deep breath. “What do you need?”
“Ha yes! I knew you would help!” She reached inside her coat and drew out a roll of tobacco tinier than a matchstick. She held it between her fingertips, and I watched as it ballooned into a full sized cigarette in her hand. She flashed those teeth again, blowing a plume of invisible smoke into the non-smoking sign across the aisle. “It’s quantum magic, see?” She pulled back her sleeve to reveal translucent skin under which roiled a hypnotic swirl of rainbow colours and shapes, tiny flashes of stars and galaxies blinking in and out of existence. I caught myself from reaching out to touch her.
“Where exactly are you from?” I fought to keep my voice steady.
“Oh, it’s a long way from here, but also very near. All you need to do to help me get back is to play a game.”
“A game?” The uneasy churning in my stomach stepped up a notch.
“Yes. Just a little game.” She lifted the jar of pennies to her face and shook it with a smile. “These are my babies. Have a look.” I picked up the jar, and it grew in my hands until I had to grip with both arms to keep it steady.
She unscrewed the lid and lifted out a coin. “This one. This is yours.” She grabbed the jar back with one hand and tossed it into her coat pocket.
The copper coin looked brand new.
“Why doesn’t it have any markings?”
“Ah, well that’s part of the game. You need to put your own name to it when you choose to play.”
I craned my neck out the window to get my bearings. “Look, I’m almost at my stop, I can’t stay for much longer, I’m sorry”
“Oh it won’t take a minute I promise. Quickly, just show me a coin from here.”
“From here?” I felt around the bottom of my bag and handed her a small silver coin.
“Now, here’s what to do.” She placed the silver coin onto my left palm. “Now put this one on your other hand.” She dropped the copper penny onto my other hand.
The copper penny seemed to melt onto my palm, shimmering and shifting until it shrank down to become a perfect replica of the silver coin.
“You see? The saucer eyes were pressed into my face. “You can have your own magic pennies, to change into anything that you want.”
“And the catch?”
“There’s no catch at all! All you need to do it to take this penny, and whisper your name to it so it becomes yours, and then you toss it back with the others, and wish me home.”
“And then what?”
“And then it’s yours forever, to change into anything you want. And I go home. So we both win don’t we?”
She pulled the new silver coin off my hand. It hung like a melted Dali clock between her fingers, before snapping back into its original form.
I took the penny and rolled it between my thumb and index finger. It felt warm and heavy against my skin, and oddly familiar, like an old treasure returned.
On one side was stamped the face of an unknown sovereign. Its other side was bare and smooth, beckoning with new possibilities.
I leaned in, and whispered my name.
The golden warmth bloomed outwards until it enveloped itself around me, and I felt myself being pulled into the cells of my new world.
The fairy picked up her newly minted coin from the empty seat beside her, dropping it into the jar as she headed home.