Chapter One

The Promise

 

 

     Alice felt watched. The feeling had come and gone for days now and was starting to freak her out. She was sitting on the bench overlooking the pond, twisted around to look into the forest behind her.
Nothing.
Just trees and more trees; bare twigs against a gray March sky, the twilight too weak to pierce the clouds.
    Dad was working from home today, not far from where she sat. Alice really didn’t want him to come blundering through the forest on one of his walks to find her here. She didn’t know how to explain what she was doing.
Alice turned back to the pond. Next to her on the bench sat a bottle of perfume and a single cigarette. The bottle was almost empty, but it had a few more puffs in it.
She pulled out the lighter she had squirreled away in her pocket. It clicked twice before it sparked a flame.
    Alice put the cigarette between her lips, put the flame to the end, then stopped.  How had Mom done it? Alice pictured Mom lighting a cigarette. She’d sucked on it. Was that it?
Hot, harsh smoke filled her nose and lungs. Alice clamped a hand over her mouth as she coughed and coughed, eyes burning. It stung like when hot tea went down the wrong way, only worse—much worse.
When she recovered, Alice held the cigarette with the glowing tip pointed up like a candle and blew on the end to keep it smoldering. With her other hand, she squirted out a cloud of perfume.
Alice breathed in through her nose. Smell was the fastest way to remember. Just a whiff was enough to send her back in time.
    She was still sitting there, enjoying her memories, when the feeling crept over her again. Someone was here. Watching her.
    Her eyes darted across the landscape. Shadows crowded among the sparse trees, but Alice couldn’t see anyone.
    Maybe it was … but no. That would be ridiculous.
    Alice studied the pond. It was edged with dead reeds, sharp and yellow, that stood guard around the black water. Trees grew right up to it, leaning over the water as if to peer into its depths. Not a whisper of wind creased the surface, turning it into a mirror.
    The lack of wind was odd in itself. The weeks she’d lived in Fiskelycka, on the southeastern coast of Sweden, it seemed as if the wind had never stopped blowing. Not only was her new town right by the sea, but the surrounding landscape was mostly farmland and apple orchards. Nothing to stop the wind for miles and miles except this little patch of forest with the bench by the water. But the forest was no more than a grove of trees with naked branches. Surely the wind would find its way in here?
    Alice ground out the half-finished cigarette. She scraped up some dirt with the heel of her shoe, dropped the butt in, and buried it. Then she walked down to the water’s edge where a little patch of pond was free from reeds. She could see the steely sky reflected perfectly in the surface.
    She saw her face, too, once she leaned out far enough.
    Although, was it her face? It seemed paler. And her hair, a color she’d never liked: mousy—not blond and shiny, not dark and mysterious … just there. Nondescript. Now, it looked almost green in the reflection.
    Alice had seen other things in the water before today. A large, pale shape. She was sure of it, had even told Dad about it. The size of a human, it seemed, just below the surface. There one second and gone the next.
    "A sun-bleached log." That’s what Dad had said. Perhaps a pike, turning its pale belly up for a moment before diving to hunt for smaller, unfortunate fish. Pike grew inexplicably large in ponds like this. Larger than you’d think, sure, but as big as a human?
    It was all too easy to imagine some beast breaking the placid surface of the pond—something that came out of the murky depths to feed at night.
    Alice looked down into the water again and saw that her other face had a slight smile. A little smile that was too knowing, too hungry, to be her own.
    Alice stopped breathing.
    She wasn’t smiling. She hadn’t had reason to smile for months. Besides, she didn’t think she’d ever smiled like that.
    She reached out her hand, and the smiling Alice in the water reached out her hand, too.
    A loud crash came from the forest behind her.
    Alice was already coiled like a spring, and the sound catapulted her up on her feet. She grabbed the perfume bottle and ran.

 

* * *

 

Alice and her parents had vacationed on the southeast coast, in the area known as Österlen, nearly every summer when she was little. They'd drive through rolling hills of sundrenched farmland to visit local artists and farmers before heading to the coast to swim in the ocean.
    Their favorite spot was a place where a pine forest grew along the coast. The path became increasingly sandier, the trees smaller, until it spilled onto the beach. On a warm day, when the sun baked the pines, the smell was heaven. With soft sand underfoot, it was like being hugged by summer.
Dad could turn any topic into a conversation about moving permanently to one of the many beautiful villages that dotted Österlen, away from the hectic life in Stockholm. Mom always smiled and nodded in a way that meant never in a million years.
    Too far from civilization. That’s how she’d put it. It was fine during the summers when the coastline came alive with vacationers because Mom loved having people around her. That’s why she’d never move away from Stockholm. She needed to be able to pop down to the corner for takeout or sit in a crowded bar, having a drink after work with a friend or three.
    Last summer, they’d visited a village on the coast. Dad had prattled on about it being an old fishing camp, about people having lived there since the whatever-era of the Stone Age. Mom and Alice had let him go at it while they looked at the beautiful old houses that lined the winding, cobbled roads. Hollyhock grew along the façades, springing up from the tiny spaces between cobbles to stand taller than Alice. Narrow alleys let them glimpse the surf as it rolled up against the beach.
    After fika—coffee and cake at the local café—Dad had led them to a nearby house.  It looked like a tiny brick castle. A crow’s castle, Dad called it. Its small size hadn’t stopped the architect from sticking on everything he could. It even had a small tower, and, by chance, it was for sale. Imagine, Dad had said, living in a place like this.  
    Mom had smiled and nodded.
    Never.
    Now, Alice sat on the front porch steps of that house, in that small village, Fiskelycka. Their new home. She gasped in ragged lungful’s of cold air, heart racing. She had almost caught her breath when the feeling came back.
    Someone was watching her.
    Alice looked around desperately but didn’t see anything out of the ordinary on her village street. Just parked cars and an elderly couple out for an afternoon stroll. Had something followed her from the forest, or worse, from below the surface of that black water?
    Maybe it was just a snooty neighbor. Alice often saw the curtains twitch as she walked down the street. She’d quickly gotten a bad reputation at her new school. See her? Alice Andersson, in eighth grade with my Jonas. Exactly, yes, the violent big city girl from Stockholm. Gave him a bloody nose for no reason at all.
    Alice did have a temper. An anger that was just below the surface. It would boil up at any moment, surprising Alice as much as it had Jonas and a handful of others. There one moment and gone the next. A flash of rage that Alice couldn’t control.
    But Alice didn’t see any curious neighbor peeking from their window.
    Then, so close to her that she started, Alice saw who was watching her.
    Green, intelligent eyes. Scarred face with half an ear missing. Orange, patchy fur.
    A huge tomcat sat by the side of the steps, looking at Alice over the top of them. When he noticed her looking, he sidled up to her, arching his back against her legs.
    “You scared me half to death.” She scratched him behind the ears. He was a battle-scarred little beast, but Alice loved cats. It had always seemed to Alice that they knew hidden truths about the world. “Have you been following me?”
    The cat meowed in response, and Alice felt as if he had actually answered her question. Not that she had any idea what his answer had been.
    “You hungry?”
    Another meow. One that Alice felt certain meant yes. It was almost dinner time, after all.

 

* * *


“There’s a cat in here,” Dad said when Alice joined him in the kitchen.
    Rag rugs lay haphazardly on the light birch wood floor, making the kitchen feel warm despite the white cupboards and cabinets. Dad sat on the kitchen bench that ran along the wall opposite the stove. He had his laptop open on the dinner table and was in his working-from-home clothes, a bathrobe over shorts and an old t-shirt. He often worked from home nowadays. Alice suspected that it was so he could keep an eye on her.
    “Did it, by any chance, follow you home?” Dad asked.
“He did, actually, and I’m going to feed him.”
    She knew Dad wouldn’t say no. Knew he felt too sorry for her to deny her anything right now. It was a lousy thing to use against him, but it wasn’t like she had any friends here. Not after all the trouble she’d caused at school. Alice knew the principal’s office in detail.
    Dad put down his cup of green tea and looked at her for a moment. She could almost see the gears turning in his head. “Well, it’s violating the refrigerator with its eyes. I would hurry before it decides to eat someone.”
She rolled her eyes. “He’s peaceful, Dad.”
“Oh, it has come in peace? That’s alright, then, honeyfly.”
“Stop calling me silly names!”
    He had a habit of changing his pet names for her often, sometimes between sentences. She’d let slip that it bugged her, so, naturally, he wouldn’t stop.
“I’m heading out before lunch tomorrow, butterrump. Need to be on site in Stockholm on Monday and I’m not getting up at the crack of dawn to fly up there before breakfast again.”
“Right.” Alice opened the fridge and had a look inside.
“What are you going to feed it?”
“Milk?” Alice held up the carton.
“Let’s see what the internet says.” Dad tapped a few keys. His dark eyes, magnified by his glasses, flicked over the screen. “Most cats are lactose intolerant and can vomit or get diarrhea if they drink milk.”
Alice made a face and put the milk back.
“I think we might have some canned mackerel in tomato sauce from pre-vegetarian times.” He pointed towards a cupboard, and a quick rummage produced a can.
The cat had been watching with rapt attention and was now rubbing up against Alice’s legs.
“Are you hungry, little guy?”
    “Little?” Dad scoffed from behind the laptop.
    Alice ignored him, got a bowl, and emptied the mackerel into it, tomato sauce and all. The cat buried his face in the food. When she tried to pet him, he hissed at her.

     “Grateful fellow.”
    “He just wants some privacy when he’s eating.”
    “Speaking of.” Dad got up. “Time to get human dinner started.”
After dinner—homemade falafel in pita bread—Alice went up to her room. She’d claimed the tower as soon as she’d seen the house. The room had a high ceiling with wood beams going across it. It was circular, which made it really hard to furnish, but it didn’t bother Alice—she had windows in every direction. She could see the ocean from one side and farmland from the other.
    Her own tower room. Bliss. Or it would’ve been, under different circumstances.
    The cat followed her up the stairs and curled up on her bed as Alice settled down in an armchair to read.
    She liked to read, but normally she’d whittle away the hours online, going deeper and deeper into the weird underbelly of YouTube or binge watching some series. But since Mom left, well … she’d gone off it completely.
    She was rereading the Lies of Locke Lamora, putting a little transparent stick-it marker on each page where they cursed and counting the swearwords in a notebook. There were a lot; some really inventive ones, too, that Alice jotted down to use for the right occasion.

* * *

 

     Alice woke in the middle of the night, suffocating. The cat sat on her chest.
She pushed him away and turned on her bedside lamp, rubbing her eyes. The cat had jumped to the floor and then to the windowsill. He was pushing his nose against the window, his breath fogging the glass; he looked to Alice, then back into the garden again.
    “What?”
    The cat looked back and forth between her and the window again. He pawed at the glass.
    “Something out there?”
    Alice dragged herself to the window. She half-expected to see a deer or something on the lawn. That had happened before and it had been magical the first time. Alice and Dad had held their breaths as they looked, in awe of nature. The fifth time, Dad had chased out in his bathrobe to stop the deer from rubbing its horns against their plum tree.
    Alice didn’t see anything now.
    “Go back to sleep.”
    But the cat didn’t budge when she tried to scoot him away, so she picked up her bedside lamp and put it on the windowsill, shining a light into the garden.
    “See? Nothing’s out there.”
    But just as she was about to go back to bed, she saw something. Their garden ended with a fence that was really just a pile of rocks plowed up from nearby fields, long ago. It was full of nooks and crannies that Alice was sure were filled with sleeping snakes.
    In the furthest corner of the garden, right by that fence, something glimmered. A golden shine.
    Alice tried to blink the sleep from her eyes. She angled the light, but it wasn’t strong enough to reach that far. She squinted. What was that?
    The cat jumped down from the windowsill and walked over to the door. He scratched at it. Alice looked back out the window—it seemed that the golden light was moving ever so slowly.
“Alright,” Alice said. She pulled on a hoodie and a pair of sweatpants. “But I’m coming with you.”

* * *



Alice started to have second thoughts as soon as she was outside. It was dark and cold. The cat, however, had no doubts. He snuck around the edge of the house, towards the back garden.    
    The bedside lamp was still on in her window, giving some light to the garden. A large pot stood on a tree stump and old fruit trees cast mottled shadows towards the stone fence.
    The cat had stopped, ears up, and Alice crouched behind him. At first, she heard nothing but her own rapid breath.
    Then she heard it, too. A low panting.
    Alice froze, but the cat crept into the dark, towards the noise. After a moment, there was an urgent meow.
    She could just make out the cat in the dark. His eyes flashed at her; he meowed again. A small tree and some bare bushes stood in that corner of the garden. The branches leaned towards each other, forming a small cave.
    Alice swallowed and crouched down, head bent to avoid the branches, and moved forward towards the cave.
    She couldn’t believe what she was seeing.
    There was a tiny girl with dragonfly wings, no more than six inches long, lying on the ground. She was soaking wet, and a large smear of blood covered her side from her ribs down. The red stood out against her deathly pale skin. Her hair was plastered to her face and a thin mist rose from her body into the cold air.
    Alice didn’t know how to react. But one thing floated to the top of her mind: This girl was hurt. “I’ll—I’ll get the first-aid kit. Just hang on, Dad will know what to do.”
    Alice started to get up, but the girl reached out a hand to stop her.
    “Don’t, please … I’m dying.”
    Alice knelt. She wanted to run and get Dad, but how could she say no? Alice did the only thing she could think of and picked her up, cupping her hands around the tiny girl’s back. Maybe her body heat would give some comfort.
    “Take it.” The voice was so weak that Alice had to hold her ear right next to the girl’s mouth. “And find the boars.”
    “Take what? What boars?”
The little thing was in a world of her own and didn’t seem to hear the question. “He’ll come. He'll come to take it back.”
    “Who?”
The tiny girl went rigid, her voice suddenly urgent. “Promise,” she said. Her eyes were clear, lucid. “Promise you’ll take it back to the tree. Get it to the tree. Time is running out.”
    The tree? Alice had no idea what she was talking about, but she had to calm her down. "Okay. I … I promise."
    “Good.” The tiny girl relaxed. “Good.” A faint smile appeared on the little face. “He stole it, but I stole it back.”
    She repeated this over and over, her voice growing fainter until there was no voice left. The little girl went limp in Alice’s hands.
    It had happened too fast. She hadn’t had time to react, to help. Alice blinked back tears, feeling useless all over again.
    Then the little girl started to glow. Her body dissolved into a million tiny dots of light, like fireflies, that drifted into the night. The dots glowed as an afterimage in the dark. But the glow of one dot didn’t go away. It wasn’t an afterimage, but something that glinted on the lawn.
The thing the girl must’ve meant for Alice to take to the boars. The thing Alice had seen from her window.
    She reached out a tentative hand and pulled it towards her, closer to the light. It was heavy, oval shaped, and seemed to glow with a light of its own.
    A large, golden egg.