When supernatural beings mess with unknowing humans, who is shocked when things go wrong?
Jasper’s downfall began on the first beautiful spring day of the year, a Saturday that was so cheerful that he broke with his routine, walking past the door of the coffee shop instead of going inside to sip strong coffee and write a rant in his journal. He continued on to a large nearby park and sat on a bench, basking in the glowing light and inhaling the soft wind that enhanced the sunshine. Jasper watched the activity around him, filled with an unfamiliar sense of connection to the world. The wriggling dogs and children danced around their parents while joggers and jugglers traced solitary lines down the paths and between the trees of the park. Jasper simply watched them all, making no attempt to cynically mask his sense of wonder.
His gaze swept back and forth across the park, taking everything in. Time flowed by as he enjoyed the day, more than he had enjoyed any day in a long time. Jasper’s attention returned again and again to a magnificent, huge old tree that looked like it would be perfect to climb. He hadn’t climbed a tree in the decade since he had decided that climbing trees was kid’s stuff, beneath the teenager he had just become. This tree was tempting, though, and in his twenties Jasper’s attitudes about proper behavior had changed. He had almost convinced himself to go for it when he looked back and was surprised to see a woman leaning against its trunk.
He hadn’t noticed her approaching, although she should have been easy to spot. Her light blond hair was a wavy cascade that flowed over one shoulder and down to her waist. She wore an exotically embroidered ankle-length dress like those he’d seen hanging in the windows of incense-scented shops on State Street; this one was in bright shades of blue, turquoise, and green. Jasper tried not to stare, but it had been a long time since he had seen a woman as stunning anywhere, and longer than that since he’d seen one who wasn’t physically attached to a proudly possessive male companion.
She soon sensed his gaze. He saw her notice him looking. She smiled. He looked away, fully aware that she was used to being stared at, and by better-looking men. He expected to see her walking away when he looked back. A shock went through Jasper when, instead, he lifted his eyes and saw her walking toward him, still smiling, looking directly at him.
She stopped a few feet away. “Hi,” she said.
“Isn’t it incredible?” she said, gesturing around at the scene in the park.
“Um… Yeah! Beautiful day,” Jasper said.
She sat next to him on the bench. A giddy happiness beyond anything he could remember ever feeling possessed Jasper for a moment.
“Why are you here?” she asked.
“Just hanging out since it’s so warm today.”
“No, I mean, what is your purpose? Why were you born?”
“I’m here to make people happy,” she said. “Do you know why you’re here?”
“No, um, no, I don’t think so.”
“Hmmm.” She looked at Jasper as if he were the strange one in this conversation. “Don’t you want to know?”
He was suddenly dejected. “Are you about to ask me to join your cult?” he asked.
She laughed delightedly. “You’re funny! No, religions don’t often make people happy. Especially not the cult ones.”
“I can’t argue with that!” Jasper said.
“Well, if you don’t know your purpose now, maybe you will later,” she said.
“Maybe. Or maybe I don’t have one.”
“Of course you do!”
He looked at her. Gorgeous. “How do you know?”
“Everyone has a purpose.”
“How do you know that?”
She smiled. “I was born knowing.”
She looked at him thoughtfully. “What is that like?” she asked.
He paused and shook his head. “Do you always go up to people and start asking them personal questions?”
“Then why are you asking me all these questions?”
“Because I’m curious about you.”
“Now you’re asking a personal question,” she teased.
Jasper ran one hand through his mop of wavy brown hair, sighing. “You’re used to getting away with anything because you’re so beautiful,” he said.
“If only,” she said, looking away for a moment. “Are you hungry?”
“Um… yeah, I could eat.”
“Good. Let’s go eat,” she said, standing up and looking at him.
Jasper learned that her name was Mary, and that she had recently arrived in town. It was hard to get details from her. Mary was a constant source of odd questions, but she shifted from one subject to the next according to the flow of her own thoughts, without providing many answers, and Jasper tried to keep up. Their conversations were always like that. As spring warmed into summer, Jasper and Mary spent more and more time together, until they were rarely apart.
One day, lounging on the bed at his place, he asked about her background.
“Where did you grow up?”
She plucked at his ratty black bedspread. “Oh, everywhere. I’ve never been in the same place for long,” Mary said.
“Really? What about your family? Where do they live?”
“They’re all spread out.”
“Like, literally everywhere.” Mary stretched out her arms wide and giggled, then pounced and tickled Jasper.
He repelled the attack and flipped her onto her back, lightly pinning her hands over her head. “Do you have brothers and sisters?” he asked, grinning. “Tell me, or you know I’ll tickle you back!”
“All right, all right! I have a sister.”
“What’s she like?”
“We’re pretty much opposites,” Mary said. “She doesn’t like anything I like.”
“Do you see her much?” Jasper asked, letting go of her wrists and flopping onto his back next to her.
“I haven’t for a while. But we always find ourselves in the same place eventually.”
“I’d like to meet her sometime.”
Mary said quietly, “I’m sure you will.” Then she pulled a corner of the bedspread over his face and tickled his armpit, beginning an intricate wrestling match that lasted for the next hour.
Jasper’s co-workers at Cat’s Collar noticed that he had lost his customary cynicism and dark outlook.
“I don’t think you’re going to be allowed to work here much longer,” his friend Caz told him when they were alone in the store one day, as she idly rearranged the unnatural shades of hair dye in the display case.
“This is a store for gothy malcontents,” she informed him. “Bitter dark fashion victims with a general loathing toward overt happiness. You were hired because you were one of our kind, but now you’ve changed. Our people will not buy their fishnet stockings from a person who is so in love that he smiles all day and coos at puppies and kittens.”
Jasper threw a blood red wig at her.
She shrieked and ducked behind the counter. “Your angst levels are dangerously low, mon ami!”
“I feel plenty of angst about my writing, Cazandra.”
“I’m not convinced.”
He sighed. “I’m serious. I can’t think of anything to write anymore. It doesn’t bother me whenever I’m around Mary – she’s an excellent distraction – but as soon as I go away from her I start to think about it. I don’t have any ideas. Maybe I’m not meant to be a writer.”
Caz scowled. “That’s ridiculous. Your stories kick ass! Maybe you’re just losing yourself in this relationship.”
“Why won’t you ever tell me what you really think, Cazzie? Why must you be so circumspect, so unwilling to share?”
She scooped up the red wig from its landing place on the battered floor and hurled it back at him, still frowning. “I’m serious! Do you ever do anything by yourself anymore, or go out with other people? How are you supposed to get ideas for stories if you only spend time with one person?”
“I’m with someone else now.”
“Only because you have to work. We never hang out the way we used to,” Caz said, peering at him sideways from behind the lock of black-dyed hair that was always falling into her face.
Jasper sighed. “I know. We will soon, I promise,” he said.
Jasper had been involved with women before. There had been a few girlfriends in college, and a couple of casual involvements in the three years since he’d graduated. None of those girls had made him smile as often as Mary did. She could cheer him out of any dark mood. They giggled together, and tickled, teased, frolicked and made love. Serious conversations were rare, and when they were apart sometimes Jasper wondered about that – weren’t couples supposed to talk about serious things, sometimes? – but the feeling of being with her was so delightful that he couldn’t worry about anything for long. That summer glowed with heat and pleasure.
“Why don’t we ever go to your place?” Jasper asked Mary one day in autumn. They were walking toward his apartment on Jenifer St., carrying takeout boxes from a nearby Indonesian restaurant.
Mary chuckled. “My home is not the right size for guests.”
“So it’s small. So what? I’d like to see where you live. I don’t even know where it is.”
“You can always find me, though, right?”
“That’s not the point. I just want to see… I don’t know. Your stuff. What you like. What’s in your music collection.”
“I don’t have much stuff.”
“You have to have some stuff. A bed. I want to see what color sheets you have!” Jasper said, trying to mask his seriousness with a light tone. “I promise I wouldn’t mess them up… much.”
“What is it? Why don’t you want to show me your apartment? It is an apartment, isn’t it – not a house with a husband, a dog, a cat, and two kids?”
“I’m not anyone’s wife!” Mary exclaimed. “I don’t have children, or pets. I just need my space to be my own, okay?”
It was the most agitated he had ever seen her. “Okay,” Jasper said, dropping the subject for the moment. He knew he would ask again someday.
Jasper could always find her. Mary had a cell phone, but she also had a knack for showing up just at the right time. He would shower, finish dressing, and intend to call, but just then she would ring his doorbell. He would finish with work, walk around the corner, and find her walking toward him. She slept at his place most nights. She had gotten a job at his favorite coffee house. The only time Jasper and Mary were consistently apart was when he was at Cat’s Collar, working. She didn’t seem to like the place.
“Why don’t you visit me at work?” Jasper asked during another walk.
“I don’t want to bother you when you’re busy.”
“Yeah, right,” he said. “It’s not exactly the busiest store in town. Most days, no one shows up. I don’t even know how we stay in business.”
“I guess some people like all that black vinyl and spooky makeup.”
“Not really. It’s kind of angry and depressing.”
“Hmmm… it’s just a style, though.”
“Some people see it as more than just fashion. It represents the way they feel.”
“It’s not, like, satanic or whatever, though,” Jasper said.
“No, just… dark. Anyway, I don’t like the atmosphere there. And I don’t think your friend Caz likes me. I think she likes you.”
“Yeah, well, we’re friends…”
“No, I mean I think she wants to be more than friends with you.”
Jasper blinked, surprised. “Cazandra? No… I’ve known her for ages, and she’s never acted like… but anyway, I don’t think of her that way. We hardly even talk anymore, now that she’s changed her schedule.”
“Anyway, I’d rather not hang out there.”
“Okay,” Jasper said.
He was even happy in the winter with Mary, and he hated winter. It was the worst thing about living in Wisconsin, as far as he was concerned. That winter was different, though. They played checkers at the coffee shop and sipped hot chocolate. They ice skated, and rode thrift-store sleds down the tallest hills they could find. Jasper normally couldn’t abide the Christmas season, with seemingly everyone competing to either out-spend or out-religion each other, or both, but that winter he enjoyed it when Mary played jolly music on the stereo and they hung a few decorations and baked cookies in his apartment. He had not yet built up the courage to ask again about her place, but he wondered about it once in a while, then forgot again. In February they went to the Kites on Ice festival on the lake, and watched as dozens of giant kites twirled colorfully, high in the sunny sky above the frozen surface. Looking at Mary’s cheeks glowing pink from the cold, and long blond braids hanging from beneath her bright blue hat, Jasper couldn’t imagine ever wanting to be with anyone else.
With the approach of the anniversary of the day they had met, Jasper realized that he wanted to share the rest of his life with Mary. He wanted to wake up to her smile and spend each day on a continuing adventure with Mary at his side. He didn’t have much money in the bank, but he shopped during his breaks from work, and found a ring with a tiny, sparkling diamond.
Mary stayed at Jasper’s apartment on the night before their anniversary. He was excitedly nervous that evening, since he had decided to take her to “their” park on the big day to give her the ring.
“You’re my favorite person in the world,” Jasper said to Mary as they cooked dinner.
“Really?” she asked quietly. “There isn’t anyone you like better?”
“Who’s your best friend?” she asked.
“I mean, other than me.”
“Oh, I don’t know…” Jasper said. “I spend all of my time with you.”
“You don’t have any other friends?” Mary asked, looking upset.
“I have friends,” Jasper said quickly. “Just not close friends, right now.”
“You shouldn’t be too dependent on me,” Mary said.
“Why not? You’re always here for me,” Jasper said, moving behind her to wrap his arms around her waist and rest his chin on her shoulder.
She pulled away and turned to face him. “What if something happened to me?”
“It won’t. I won’t let it,” Jasper told her.
“Now is not the time to use soap opera dialogue!” she exclaimed. “I’m serious – what if something happened to me? What would you do?”
“Well, I… It depends,” he said. “What are you talking about?”
“What if I wasn’t here anymore?”
“What, like if you died?” Jasper asked. “I’d be destroyed. You’re not, like, sick or something, are you?”
“No, I’m not sick. But I had no idea you were giving up all of your friends – your whole life – for me.”
“There’s no one I’d rather be with.”
Mary sighed. “Don’t say that.”
“I have to say it. It’s true! I love you more than anyone or anything else.”
Their chicken was starting to burn. Mary shoved it off of the heat, avoiding eye contact, and said, “Look, let’s eat.”
They set the table and sat down with their chicken, broccoli, and bottles of beer. Jasper didn’t know what to say, so he ate and drank without saying anything. Mary seemed to relax as the minutes passed, and soon she started to tell him stories about her day at the coffee shop. He listened without complaining about the change of subject. Her mood improved visibly, and by the time they had scooped vanilla ice cream into bowls for dessert, she was as lighthearted as ever.
Jasper didn’t understand what had happened, but Mary was especially passionate in bed that night, and for that he was grateful.
The next morning, on their anniversary, Mary was gone when he woke up. He found a note:
I know that this will make you sad, and I can’t help it. I have to leave now. There’s no way that I can help you to understand this, so I’m going to just go. I hope that you will always remember that I loved you. Please find a new life and be happy.
He read the note again and again, and felt depression falling onto him like a boulder from a cliff, crushing him flat. He sat with the note between his fingers, unable to move, staring at the signature. Her decision to leave was awful enough, but it seemed somehow worse to Jasper to realize that he had never known how she spelled her name.
The next few days were grim. When Jasper went to the coffee shop, no one there had heard from Merry. They asked him why Merry hadn’t been in. Her cell phone was disconnected. He didn’t know where she had lived. There were no listings for any variation of her name: Merry Dargestellt, Mary Dargestellt, M. Dargestellt. He made sure to double-check the spelling of the name she’d written on her job application.
Jasper skipped work and didn’t bother to call in. He didn’t answer the phone when it rang, and didn’t pay attention to the voices leaving messages on his machine. The next day he did the same. No one showed up to open Cat’s Collar that day, and Jasper was fired.
For the first month after Merry’s disappearance, Jasper hardly left his apartment. He didn’t pay bills. Some days he didn’t eat. He lost weight, didn’t shave, and bathed sporadically. He didn’t speak to anyone. He cried.
At some point he dimly realized that this was a bad situation. He picked up the phone.
“Hi, Caz?” Jasper’s voice was raspy; he cleared his throat.
“Caz. This is Jasper.”
“Um, I was wondering if you wanted to get together.”
A disbelieving noise. “You want to get together now? What happened, did your girlfriend dump you?”
The line was silent.
“I don’t believe you. I asked you to hang out so many times, and you were always too busy with the most perfect woman in the world. And now the only reason you’re calling me is because she dumped your sorry ass and you need somebody. Guess what – it’s not gonna happen. You don’t deserve me. You never deserved me. I just didn’t see it until you blew me off. Real friends don’t do that. If you can’t be a good friend, you can’t be a good boyfriend. No wonder she dumped you.”
Jasper realized that he had absolutely no one to talk to, and thought about dying. It was almost enough to make him consider reaching out to his tyrannical parents, but there were limits. They had made his childhood miserable, and he couldn’t imagine how they might help him now.
There was a tiny spark left inside him, though. He didn’t want to die. He looked at his reflection in the mirror, and said, “I could live if I were stranded on an island. I can live stranded in this city.”
That afternoon he went outside. He had just eaten his last can of beans, and his kitchen was completely devoid of food. He decided to make a walk of it, though, before going to the grocery store. Jasper wandered the streets in his neighborhood, then kept going onward. He knew that it wasn’t a good idea, but he was heading toward the park where he had met Merry. He arrived there and perversely sat in exactly the same place where he had been when he had first seen her. The park looked almost the same as it had that first day, full of activity and warmth. It was almost unbearable.
He had been avoiding looking at the huge old tree, but his head turned toward it against his will and he was surprised to see a woman leaning against its trunk. He hadn’t seen her approaching, although she should have been easy to notice. Her black hair was a wavy cascade that flowed over one shoulder and down to her waist. She wore an exotically embroidered ankle-length dress like those he’d seen hanging in the windows of incense-scented shops on State Street; this one was in shades of gray, dark purple, and deep red. Jasper tried not to stare, but his heart was pounding furiously as he recognized her shape and found himself on his feet before her name had even formed in his mind.
“Merry!” he cried, striding toward her across the grass. She remained still and looked at him with a cool gaze. Jasper continued forward, breaking into a desperate run, staring at her intently. She looked back, expressionless. He was within twenty feet of her when she began to change. Jasper staggered and stopped suddenly, watching with shock as Merry’s form became translucent. She faded slowly, becoming increasingly transparent, until she had disappeared completely.
Jasper fell to the ground, hearing a rushing sound in his ears and feeling only a flimsy attachment to his body and the world around him. He struggled to breathe, gasping. Slowly, he regained his hold on consciousness, but his mind flailed, attempting to understand what had just happened. He buried his face in his hands, his entire body shaking.
The walk home didn’t register in Jasper’s mind. He found himself there, gratefully contained within solid walls, and accepted that he had arrived there somehow. That night he sat in his apartment, rocking back and forth rhythmically, and staring blankly at the wall, forgetful of everything but the vanishing scene playing repeatedly in his mind. He didn’t eat. He didn’t sleep.
“One thing is clear,” Jasper said to his disheveled reflection the next morning. “This is clear. This. Merry is testing me. She didn’t believe that I loved her enough, and she wants me to prove myself to her.”
He paused, tilting his head. “No, this is right. I feel this. Merry wants me back. She wouldn’t have revealed herself to me if she didn’t want me back. Merry is out there. She’s out there. She is out there. Merry knows where I am, she knows where to find me. I’ll show her what she needs to see. I’ll give her what she needs to have. I’ll… I’ll… Yes. She’ll know. She’ll understand the way I feel. Finally.”
Jasper dressed in the first pieces of clothing he could find, not noticing the stains on the shirt. He ran his hand over his unwashed hair, and left the apartment.
It was obvious to him that Merry was a magical creature – he didn’t know why he hadn’t known it before – and he knew that magical creatures needed symbolism in their communication. It was in all the books. He understood now that all the fairy tales and religions, even the cartoons and holiday television specials, were a secret preparation adults gave to children so that their minds would be ready to accept the hidden reality beneath the ordinary world. Jasper realized that his mind had needed the right kind of push to crack open and know everything for what it really was, layers of meaning and knowledge hidden in plain sight, ready to be discovered. Merry had pushed him so that he could see.
Walking, that day, Jasper waited for Merry to reveal herself. He knew that she was watching, so he sent her little signals. He found little scraps of paper and folded them into shapes, and deposited them in a mailbox. That was to signal his desire to communicate. He turned in a slow circle at each street corner. That was to show he was ready to see her. He opened his arms wide in grand gestures. That was to show that his mind had opened wide enough to understand. Sometimes people looked at him. He didn’t care.
Jasper walked all that day, bone tired, through the long late spring sunlight, and kept walking as darkness stained the sky, forcing himself by will alone to stay awake and walk in the dark, for as long as it might take to prove his love.
Finally, she appeared again, near dawn, silently watching from across the street, beckoning Jasper toward her.
Jasper took a jubilant step toward Merry, then stumbled back as a truck’s horn blared. The truck driver glared as the truck roared past and Jasper fell. Merry faded, her image rippling, then re-solidified and turned, walking away from him.
“Wait!” Jasper called, struggling to his feet. “I understand now! I’m ready to know everything!” She looked over her shoulder and shrugged.
He forced himself onward for the next few hours, footsore, dizzy with fatigue, thirsty, starving, but he didn’t dare stop. Merry led him onward, disappearing if he got too close, giving him time to panic but reappearing eventually, farther ahead. She led him toward downtown. The sidewalks soon began to fill with people on their way to work, but Jasper hardly saw them. He was beginning to feel something new as she taunted and tortured him.
“You’ve gone too far,” he told her. “This is too much!”
Merry walked backwards, maintaining a short distance ahead of him, just out of reach, watching as Jasper limped forward.
“You’re making me angry,” he told her.
Merry just looked at him with the smug expression she had been wearing all along.
“Just because I haven’t caught you yet, doesn’t mean I won’t catch you someday. Now I know you’re not testing me. You’re evil. I see that now. The whole thing, the whole time you were with me, it was a trick. You were planning to destroy me.”
Her face rippled, distorting grotesquely.
“You know what I’ll do when I catch you? First I’ll make you admit that you were planning this all along. Then you’ll tell me how you do it. How you appear and disappear. And then I’ll end you.”
Merry looked to the side.
“Don’t give me that! I don’t care if we’re in public, I don’t care who’s listening. They’ll understand what I’ve had to do when I show them what you’re going to teach me before you die. They’ll see that you deserved it. That you were taunting me. They won’t care about an evil witch like you. I cared, and look what it got me. No one in the world is gonna blame me.”
Merry continued on, walking backwards, never even checking to see where she was going, and never bumping into anyone. She stuck out her tongue at him and gave him the finger.
“Auuggggh!” Jasper bellowed, lunging forward at her with the last strength in his body, swinging his arms. Merry danced away, black hair bouncing. and Jasper’s right hand caught a passing woman in the face. The woman shrieked, and Jasper was shoved to the ground from behind. Someone yanked his arms behind him.
“That’s it, buckaroo,” a male voice told Jasper firmly. “I’ve been following you for a couple of blocks while you’ve been threatening somebody no one else can see, but now you’ve hit a real person and that’s a problem. Are you all right, ma’am?”
The woman nodded, scowling at Jasper. “I’m fine. Just make sure you lock him up.”
Handcuffs clicked onto Jasper’s wrists, and Merry faded away one last time.
Merriment and Misery sat, halfway transparent, on the ledge of a bridge over a busy highway, outside of the metal cage designed to keep pedestrians safe. Merry twirled her blond hair around one finger while her sister, black-haired Mizzy, arranged stones on the ledge.
“You shouldn’t have teased him like that,” Merry said. “I came back to you within a year, as I promised I would.”
“Oh, you know humans. Adversity gives them character. Besides, he stole you from me.” Mizzy said.
“He didn’t know!”
“Ignorance isn’t always bliss.”
Merry sighs. “I only wanted to have some fun with someone for a while.”
“We’re not supposed to mingle with humans for a reason. They get addicted to us. You know what Wisdom says.” Misery dropped a pebble onto the windshield of a car passing below, noting its slight swerve as the driver reacted to the noise. She smirked.
“Why are we even here then, if we can’t get involved with them?”
“To make their lives interesting. To stimulate them. You watch – that Jasper’s writing is going to be brilliant from now on.”
“Driving someone crazy is going too far.”
“I have to balance your nonsense somehow. It’s my destiny. Besides, was he really getting anywhere in life by dancing around in the park with a silly girl?”
“Are you saying that Jasper is better off now that he’s in the psychiatric ward?”
“Maybe, maybe not. All I know is that I feel much better.” Mizzy looked at her neat row of stones, arranged in size from smallest to largest, and selected one that was twice the size of the previous pebble. She dropped it, but missed her target.
“Anyway, he’s not very bright,” Mizzy continued, “if he can’t tell the difference between twins with different-colored hair.”
“I’m sure he thought I was in disguise.”
“Then he couldn’t have thought that you were very bright. A dye job. Nice disguise.” A larger stone barely missed a car below. “Damn it!”
Merry sighed again. “How am I supposed to make people happy when I know you’re just going to ruin it every time? It’s depressing!”
“Even more depressing if you gave up, I’m sure.”
Mizzy shrugged. “I’m here for a reason, like everyone else.”
“I’m going now.”
“To find someone nice to talk to.”
Merriment faded away. Misery sat alone for a while, until a glint formed in her eye. She looked at her collection of rocks and reached over to the end of the row, lifting a fist-sized stone and standing up. A cluster of cars approached on the highway in the distance, packed together, moving at high speed. She watched, nodded, and held steady, steady, until just the right moment. Wearing a look of intense concentration, she dropped the rock. Her gaze held tightly to the falling stone all the way down through its rapid descent until it punched through the lead car’s windshield and the panicked driver attacked the brakes and the car shrieked to a stop only to be shoved forward by the pileup of all the cars behind it. Misery watched the scene avidly. Violent smashing sounds combined with screams and then dropped into a moment of complete silence.
Misery stood poised above it all, quietly absorbing every detail. She gave a brief, professional smile, and vanished.