"Hey, jerkface, I need a signature," I yelled into the upstairs.
"Why, Michelle," said the jerkface in question from behind me. I didn't even jump, I was used to him doing that. "I thought you'd grown beyond such transparent schemes. If I could be tricked that easily, I -"
"I don't need you to write your literal actual real truuuuuuuue name," I snapped. "I need you to write 'Jennifer Schultz' on my field trip form, and then agree that you wrote it if anyone asks. But if that's too much trouble for your exalted baronial self -"
"Ducal, Michelle!" he hissed, kind of getting in my face, but I was used to that too. Riling him up was very cheap entertainment. He wasn't going to actually touch me, I'd figured that out pretty quick.
"Your exalted royal self -"
"Ducal! I don't trespass on the Queen's titles -"
"If you don't want to write 'Jennifer Schultz' on my form," I said, "then you could go ahead and give me the real live Jennifer Schultz! I think this would save you a lot of trouble going forward! I mean, imagine all the seconds you'd shave off from saying my name in every sentence like you think that's intimidating to a human. Think of the leaves you wouldn't have to turn into money for my groceries. You could spend hours upon hours chasing deer or whatever it is you do when you're not pretending to be my mom."
"Michelle," he said, "my charge is as it must be, and you will not get out of it by appealing to lost time. Unlike you, I will have as many hours as I could possibly wish to hunt stags, to weave gossamer from sunbeams... Michelle, really."
"So sign the form, jerkface."
He signed it. Well, wrote 'Jennifer Schultz' on it. I obviously have no idea what his name is. He doesn't even give me a nickname to call him, not that I'd be very likely to use it if he introduced himself as Gossamerweave Staghunter or whatever, so I just say 'jerkface'. I do this all the time, including to my teacher. Handing in the form and saying, loud enough for the whole class to hear, "Hey, Miss Simpson, jerkface signed my form for me!" will get me a warning to pipe down and absolutely nothing about how to address my supposed mother. Nobody ever notices anything is weird about how this kind of anime-looking but obviously male Fair Folk guy is posing as her, up to and including from my behavior. I'm glad it works that way, since obviously I'm not going to call him Mom.
I did try to save her. I tried really hard. It's just that all of the ice sculptures looked like... ice sculptures. Not even sculptures of people. There were birds, feather-perfect, and snowflakes, and rabbits, and flowers down to the veins on the petals, and jewels, and they looked like ice sculptures, and I didn't know which one was her.
She hasn't melted, I know that. It's always winter in that valley. But I only got one guess.
"Jerkface, we're out of milk," I yelled, when I poked my head into the fridge. "Give me grocery money. Like a hundred dollars of it." He eats, I think, but I don't see him doing it and I don't think it's the same stuff I eat. I had to learn to cook, after I spent a couple of weeks eating frosting out of the can and stuff like that. It's not like he cares. I can do most of Mom's recipes okay now, except I think she must have had a secret ingredient or something that she didn't write down, in the macaroni casserole. Maybe she was hiding vegetables in it all along and didn't want me to fish out the index card and discover it. I eat salad now. On purpose. But I put a lot of ranch on it.
When I pulled out of the fridge with a string cheese in my hand there was a pile of fives on the kitchen table. He always does fives. I think it's possible he pays the mortgage entirely in fives, which he rakes up off the lawn. I have seen him raking the neighbors' lawns, and then refusing to be paid, and taking their leaves, when there weren't enough here. That seems to be the only way he has of getting money. I couldn't tell you what anyone at Mom's old job thinks happened to her. He's definitely not showing up to the dialysis clinic every day. But they haven't come looking for her at home and I haven't tried picking up the phone and going "hi, is Jennifer there, this is her daughter Michelle" like I was supposed to do if I had some kind of emergency during work hours. Maybe I should sometime if I ever feel like I need a good cry or whatever.
I gathered up the pile of bills and got out my bike. It has one of those milk crate baskets, and that plus sometimes hanging stuff off my handlebars means I can carry enough for one person who mostly eats school lunch to last a week. Peanut butter, grape jelly, bread, carton of milk, bag of salad, frozen chicken nuggets, eggs, macaroni casserole ingredients, broccoli soup ingredients, ranch whenever I'm low on it, cake mix if I'm out or can't remember whether or not I'm out. Sometimes I get ice cream or chips but I can get those at the school vending machine. (It doesn't take fives, and I have to get change from somebody every time, but still, it feels silly to get a half a gallon of chocolate chip cookie dough to save money when the money is leaves.) I have no idea what the jerkface would have done if I'd been, like, six, and couldn't figure out how to shop for myself. If I'd been a baby and had needed bottle-feeding, even, what in the world does a Fair Folk do with that. I guess maybe a baby wouldn't have been in that situation, but a kindergartener could have been.
I loaded up my basket and bought the food. I usually use the self checkout just because it's there and I kind of don't like how nobody ever asks why I have so many five dollar bills, nobody asks why I'm shopping by myself, nobody asks if my mom said it would be okay to get five tubs of funfetti frosting. It's easier to just avoid them and pretend they would've asked if I'd talked to anybody.
The bike ride isn't that long. Sometimes I even walk, if I need to go in the middle of the week because I want to get something unusual and won't have that much to haul. I got home about half an hour after I left and put the change in my piggy bank that I still have even though I'm too old for it at this point, and put away all the groceries. He doesn't care if I just leave them on the table but you can't do that with milk and then I might as well get everything put into the pantry like things are normal. Sort of like using the self-checkout. If I have a friend over they aren't going to notice that my mom hasn't been putting the groceries away and vacuuming the carpet and making me take out the trash and that was thrilling for a period of about four days, after I was through all the stages of grief and before I was really aware of how far the creepy not being noticed thing spread. It spreads really far. I think I could probably assassinate the President while yelling at the top of my lungs "this is a test of the mind control the Fair Folk jerkface that replaced my mom uses to make sure nobody notices he did that!" and the cause of death would be listed as a heart attack.
So I do all the chores, and I take care of myself, and I eat salad, and I call the jerkface a jerkface because I'm not going to call him Mom but I don't try anymore to get people to notice. I did for a bit. I'd turn to the person next to me in the middle of English class, while the teacher was talking, and say "It's funny that we should be reading Bridge to Terabithia, because did you know that I in fact actually in real life no fooling went through a magical portal to a fantasy realm, where the Fair Folk stole my mother, I think because she ate something of theirs possibly but I'm not sure, and then they replaced her, but you have been enchanted not to notice". Or, well, usually I wouldn't be that elaborate about it. But I'd say stuff that was sort of like that. And they'd look at me like I asked what page we were on, except for not telling me what page we were on. It's never anything very specific like that that gets filled in. They just assume I said something normal.
After the groceries I got the jerkface to cough up another pile of money and went out again to get new socks since my old ones were getting kind of dingy even when I followed all the instructions on the laundry detergent box. One thing I did back in the frosting eating stage of grief was I got him to give me a lot, like a whole lot, of leaves. I think it was like five thousand dollars, so a thousand fives. And then I bought clothes, fancy ones, all the ones Mom wouldn't have been able to afford for me, and would have said were stupid, and just a silly game that would seem dumb when I was older. I looked like a million bucks. Or maybe just like five thousand bucks. But I went to school dressed like a popular kid. They did actually notice that. They didn't wonder why my mom suddenly went on a shopping spree, or anything, but they noticed I was dressed up. It just didn't do anything. I didn't know what to do next after showing up like that. I wound up returning everything and getting normal stuff and every time somebody made a comment about it I'd tell them that it was the jerkface's fault like everything else, even though it's not like he forced five thousand leaf dollars into my hands and told me I had to buy one of everything at American Eagle.
Look, you do a lot of weird things during the frosting eating stage of grief. I painted my room. I actually did okay at that, I put sheets over the furniture first and everything and it looks kind of cool and very purple now. I tried to adopt a dog, but they wanted my mom to physically come along with me to the shelter and sign things, and the jerkface wouldn't do it, so I did not manage to actually adopt one, but I pet-sat for somebody the next time there was a chance to, like she wouldn't have let me do. I slept late and skipped school sometimes and told them to call my mom when they asked me where I'd been. I didn't brush my teeth for a while and that turned out to be a very bad combination with the frosting thing and I had to have like ten fillings the next time I went to the dentist. I watched a lot of TV. There was just... so so much frosting.
I did try to find her. The Fair Folk said that it would be easy if I let my love for her guide me. They said that they'd transformed her into a statue of ice, and that since I hadn't trespassed of my own will, I should suffer no loss for the crime, and all I had to do was prove that I loved her.
It's just that I didn't.
I miss her. I was used to her. The jerkface is awful and I hope he falls down stairs made of salt. (I've tried putting salt places. It doesn't work but he does react to it at all and start declaiming about how he isn't going to fall to so puny an assault, so I think maybe it would do something if there were a lot more of it or you stabbed him with it or something.) But if I'd loved her I probably would've been able to guess which flower or bird or snowflake was her. If she'd been more of a person to me than a box of recipe cards and the fact of living in a house where the mortgage got paid every month.
I bought a bunch of socks. It was almost winter, in the mortal world, where seasons aren't a municipal-level convention, and it was going to get chilly enough through my badly insulated bedroom window that I'd want to grab socks out of a heap right next to the bed before I poked any farther out of the covers than I had to. Nice big pile of warm wooly socks. In Christmasy colors, because why not, if anyone made fun of me all I would have to say is "a Fair Folk is impersonating my mother because it turned out all she was to me at the time was a roof over my head and I still have that, so they think this was okay, for some reason" and then everything will seem totally, super normal. Exactly what you expect somebody to say and definitely on-topic and not remarkable at all and not to be followed with further inquiries about my festive Christmasy socks.
I got home with my pile of Christmasy socks and took off all their wrappings and put them in their heap. Actually in a basket because I found the basket Mom used to keep her yarn stash in before she gave up knitting since she never had the energy. But they were in a heap within the basket. Then I did some of my homework. Spouting off about my mom won't keep somebody from giving me bad grades, and I'm not actually sure what would happen if I flunked, so I do enough of it to pass and if I'm really crunched I tell the jerkface that my mom would've helped me. She did that about twice but it was enough to get him to magic something done once in a while.
I had nuggets for dinner, and salad, both with a lot of ranch on them, and decided not to bother to bake a cake, or even to eat frosting out of the can. I put all the dishes in the dishwasher. I wandered around through the house in case the jerkface was asleep somewhere and I could pour salt on his face. I've caught him like that a couple times, but this time, like most times, there was no evidence he was anywhere in the house, or raking. I don't know where he goes. I don't know if he is strictly required to be anywhere at all points in time. Maybe part of being immortal is getting to skip parts because you'll still have infinity time no matter how much you do it.
Once I'd made sure he wasn't lurking somewhere like a total creeper, except in the sense that if I said "hey jerkface" he'd materialize, I put myself to bed.
Sometimes I have nightmares. Sometimes the nightmares are about the cold in the ice sculpture gallery. It was freezing, and I wasn't dressed for it. I had sandals on, when it happened, and long sleeves but not very thick ones. I asked the Fair Folk who was watching me search through the statues if Mom's clothes were somewhere, so that I could put them on over what I was wearing, but they'd changed with her. It was so cold. I kept wanting to fall asleep, but I was pretty sure at the time that would have killed me. Now I think I ought to have tried it - they didn't let me lose any toes, I don't think they would have let me die - but I didn't know, then, I was just focused on finding Mom. I looked at every single sculpture. There were about forty of them - I counted but I've forgotten, now, how many, just that it was forty something. I looked at them all over and over and over while my fingers turned blue and I stopped being able to feel my ears and I tried and tried to love her and I didn't know how.
I think I could do it now. I think if you put me back in that sculpture gallery, now after all of this, it wouldn't matter if I was in my underwear, I'd be able to think of enough stuff from when she was around to manage it. I would remember her making broccoli soup, and remember her getting me books on Christmas, and remember her driving me to the doctor's office to get my broken arm wrapped up, and remember her telling me how to call the clinic and ask for her if I ever needed her in spite of the fact that I had never needed her and kind of still didn't.
So, the second kind of nightmare I have is about doing that.
I think maybe the jerkface would let me try. I think maybe he'd bring me back to the winter place, maybe on the anniversary of when it happened or something. I think it sort of fits with how he works, with how all the Fair Folk work. And in the second kind of nightmare, I do. I go and I love her as much as I can and it's enough and I go up to the statue that she was turned into and hug it or something, and it melts and it's my mom, back again and okay.
And then in the dream, it doesn't usually go into much detail past that point, but I know, like you do in dreams, that everything is going to get worse. We're going to have to eat rice and beans for months while she gets a job again. She's going to have to call up every single member of our family, ones I haven't talked to in ages because her phone was turned into ice with her clothes and I don't have their numbers and they haven't noticed anything's wrong. She's going to have to catch up on who's President now and figure out how to get into her bank account and her email. She's going to go to therapy, as soon as she has the money to spare for it, hours and hours of therapy, and she'll make me go too, and finally someone will hear me when I say bizarre things, and it will hurt, and I won't even be able to eat frosting about it because Mom doesn't let me do that.
The only thing worse than coming home to a jerkface would be that.
One of these days I'll probably ask him. I'll find a way that'll appeal to his stupid Fair Folk sensibilities, like, "I challenge you double or nothing to a rematch, for the life of my beloved mother", and I'll carry a picture of her against my heart even if I have to buy a shirt with a breast pocket specifically for that, and I'll go wearing a furry parka but I'll fling it off my shoulders before I even walk in among the ice sculptures to prove that I won't need hours, this time, won't be trying to figure out if Fair Folk will kill me for peeing in their statue gallery (they didn't, obviously), won't be stopping every few minutes to bring my feet up to my face and breathe on them till they hurt again.
But it might take a while, like until I'm in college. I can probably get him to pay for college first, all four years entirely in fives, and then we won't be squeezed together while she's figuring everything out again.
And if she asks me what took so long, I will be in another state, and I can say "bad connection, sorry, same time next week?" and eat as much frosting as I have to.