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A Quantum Fairy Tale

Instead of coins, because she had no allowance, Amelia dropped the shiniest pebbles she could find down the garden wishing well, standing on her toes to look over the stone wall and watch them disappear. They clattered once or twice off the well walls and then, after a few seconds, came the splash. She ran around the garden, poking around the edges of the trimmed path, and came back with the largest stone she could carry in both hands, a glistening piece of split quartz that she balanced on the lip of the well, hesitating with the anticipated joy of it, before shoving it over the edge. It plummeted away into her imagination, a great white comet headed through space, and hit the bottom of the well with a cough of water.

Amelia listened for a long time as the water subsided. But the noise didn’t fully go away, there was still something disturbing the surface, getting louder, a rumble, getting closer. She pulled her face back from the dark pit of the well mouth. The rumble sounded like claws, climbing up the stone walls.

A black, reptilian face thrust up out of the well at her, a mouth full of teeth open to swallow her. Amelia shrieked and fell backward onto the ground. The black dragon climbed fully out of the pit and perched on the stone wall and hissed at her. She screamed again and clapped both of her hands together on the dragon’s body, trapping it.

Her mother heard her screams and came outside. “Oh look! You’ve caught a little lizard!”

Amelia looked at the creature in her hands. How strange, she thought, that it was able to fit in her palms. It had seemed so much larger just a second ago. The dragon flicked out its tongue and scooped her breath into its mouth. It could taste her fear, could taste all of the things that made up her insides. “Let it go, and wash your hands,” her mother said.

But she didn’t want to let it go. Because then it would eat her. “No.”

“Come on. Come inside and wash up.”

The dragon was looking at her, waiting for her to decide. So Amelia did the only thing she could do, and threw it back down the well. Her mother immediately scolded her, but Amelia felt satisfied that she had done the right thing. “No more playing by the well, if you’re going to do things like that.”

At the dinner table, Amelia’s parents talked to each other about their jobs, or about news on the radio of wars that sounded very dangerous but were also far away. Amelia’s father was a serious man who worked long hours in the city, and who liked to spend hours after dinner reading the newspaper before going to bed early. Neither of them spoke much to Amelia except to ask what she’d learned from the tutor that day or, and this from her mother repeatedly, to say, “Stop playing with your food,” and, “Sit up straight,” and, “Take your elbows off the table,” or to otherwise behave like a proper young lady.

When everyone had gone to sleep, and when she also was supposed to be asleep, Amelia opened her window and looked out over the garden. There were fairies in her garden, she knew; sometimes she talked with them when she couldn’t sleep. Here they were now, bright little specks of flickering light floating through the air, blinking on and off. The night was warm, and Amelia enjoyed breathing the fresh flower breezes that curled into her room. One of the fairies drifted close enough to her window that Amelia could clasp it in her hands, much more gently than she had the dragon, and whisper to the fistful of light she held. “What should I do about the dragon?” she asked the fairy.

The fairyfly answered, “You must keep your window closed at night so that he can’t get you. When you are asleep is when you are weakest against him.”

She let the firefly go and closed and locked her window tight. For a long while she lay perfectly still on her bed and watched the window, afraid to close her eyes. She shut them into little slits so that she could still see, and pretended to sleep, and as soon as she did the dragon came to her window and looked in on her. The moon was shining with all its might through the window and when the dragon crawled across the glass on its gecko feet, it cast huge black serpent shadows across Amelia’s bed. Amelia couldn’t help her fright, and cried out until she heard someone stirring in her parents’ room, coming down the hall. But even before her bedroom door opened, Amelia knew what her mother was going to say to her, that it was just a bad dream, that she was being silly, that there wasn’t anything out there.

The fairies did their best to keep her safe at night, but that didn’t help during the day when Amelia was playing in the garden, well away from the well, and saw the lizard sunning itself on a dry patch of grass. “Bad lizard!” she said to it, and took out her frustration by throwing one of her smooth pebbles that she kept in the pockets of her dress at it. She had a good arm, honed by all her practice skipping stones across the garden pond, and her throw hit the dragon squarely. The dragon looked up at Amelia for a minute and then purposefully, spitefully, spat a little ball of fire into the dry grass and slithered away. The girl stamped her feet on the grass to put it out, yelling, “Mom! Mom! Mom!” over and over until her mother came out and pulled her away and extinguished the fire with a bucket of water.

Amelia was punished harshly that night, confined to her room because her mother wouldn’t believe the story about the little dragon that could breathe fire. Amelia sat on her bed with her arms crossed and a scowl on her face, kicking the wall repeatedly, hoping that the noise disturbed her parents’ dinner downstairs. She watched the window carefully.

But something in the mirror made her stop kicking. In the mirror of her bedroom she could see herself, of course, but she could see herself lying down, on the bed, eyes closed tight, lit by the moon. In this vision, the window to her room had been left open and the black dragon — long and sinuous — flowed into her room and coiled around her bed, opened its mouth to swallow her.

Wide awake, Amelia jumped off her bed and ran to the mirror and did the only thing she could think of to save her sleeping self; she grabbed the edge of the mirror’s frame and pulled it from the wall down to the floor where it splintered into a thousand dragon-free pieces. Dinner downstairs was most certainly ruined. Here they came, frantic up the steps and down the hall.

Amelia never broke another mirror after that, but neither would she look into one ever again. If she was in a room with a mirror, Amelia would turn it around, or knock it over, or cover it as best she could. The dragon still came to visit her at night, when it thought she was asleep. Amelia tried to trick it each night by closing her eyes part way, so that it would come to her window faster and she could know where it was before she fell asleep. Sometimes, though, she was just so tired that her eyes closed all the way and Amelia fell asleep before she saw the dragon. Those were the worst nights, not knowing if it had got in somehow and was even now under her bed. Her dreams were full of the dragon and she shook in her sleep. Mornings after the night-terrors Amelia would wake up to a bed sodden with sweat, and would hastily change all the linens before her mother came up to get her out of bed.

Josh Pearce writes from the San Francisco Bay Area where he fights the encroaching sprawl of Silicon Valley with longhand. He currently works as an assistant editor at Locus magazine and his writing is in Analog, Asimov’s, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Clarkesworld. Follow him on Twitter @fictionaljosh or visit fictionaljosh.com.