It was my first summer after getting my useless BA in Anthropology, and I’d agreed to run my Aunt Mackie’s store for her while she went over to Europe for two months on some weird hippie tour. The store, Crescent Dreams, was your typical New Age-cum-witchcraft place crammed with crystals, herbs, tarot decks, essential oils and a very old, very unpretentious St. Bernard named Layla who spent her days splayed out on the floor making the customers step over her. Aunt Mackie had converted the first floor of her sagging Edwardian two-story into the shop, and lived above it. The wood floors were creaky and uneven, the merchandise was trickily placed into what had been living and dining rooms, hallways and a kitchen, and the whole effect was sort of discombobulating and ungainly. Of course, the customers ate it up, but they didn’t have to stock the place or catalogue anything.

I was twenty-two, my girlfriend had just dumped me, and I had nowhere to go or be. I’d always been Aunt Mackie’s favorite nephew, and I think she felt a little sorry for my being unmoored from both academia and love, so she said I should come down to Geneva, Florida, and stay for the summer. The deal was simple and over-generous - I’d work the store for two months, live upstairs in her digs, and she’d pay me two grand when she got back. While the idea of sitting in a patchouli cloud occasionally selling a candle didn’t thrill me, I knew it was a good thing for me to just sit still for a while in peace and sort myself out.

I’d been there about three weeks when it happened. It was around eight o’clock in the evening. I’d let Layla out into the yard for her final bathroom performance, balanced the till, did what little cleaning needed done and was walking to the door to flip the little plywood sign from Open to Close, when the door was shoved open and a woman staggered in.

I say ‘staggered’; it should be ‘waddled’. She was young, but obviously very pregnant. She was also out of breath, clad in some horror of a Seventies Flower Child dress and gripping a duffel bag with both white-knuckled hands. She stared at me as though I were something so utterly foreign, so unexpected, her mind was clicking over its gears just to comprehend my presence. Wasn’t particularly nice.

“Oh my God,” she panted at last. “Where’s Madame Kinsia?”

“,” I replied, blinking. “I don’t one here.” Two strangers babbling nonsense at each other. Always exciting.

“Where is she?” the woman demanded. “This is life or death. I need to talk to her right now.”

I gave myself time for a pause and a breath. “I don’t know who Madame Kinsia is. The lady who does the Tarot readins on Wednesday night is Raven Hollyhill. I mean, obviously not her real name, but that’s what she goes by.”

“She owns this place!” The hitched voice was bordering on desperation.

“Aunt Mackie owns -...” And then it hit me. “Shit. Mackie - Mackenzie - Kinsia. Aunt Mackie goes by Madame Kinsia?”

“What?” murmured the woman in vague bewilderment. “Who -...whatever! I have to talk to her.”

I shrugged. “She’s overseas ‘til mid-August. I’m her nephew, Jonas. And I’m closing up, actually…”

At that second, her face contorted in pain. In perfect sync, there was a distant rumble of thunder overhead.

I was quicker on the uptake this time. “Holy shit - are you in labor?”

She didn’t answer. Couldn’t, I mean. It took a full thirty seconds before her expression relaxed and she nodded faintly. “I’m in so much trouble,” she whimpered. “What’m I gonna do?”

“You’re gonna sit tight and let me call you an ambulance for Pete’s sake,” I retorted shortly. “What are you doing coming here when you’re in labor, anyhow?”

“I need help,” she replied, considerably less fired up and much more frightened than she’d been a minute ago. “I need Madame Kinsia.”

“Well, the Madame is off worshipping at Silbury Hill, and she answers her cell phone about once every million days, so that’s not gonna happen.”

The woman looked so defeated, so scared, I decided to ease up. “Look,” I began, “it’s ok. If you don’t have anyone you can call to take you to the hospital, I’ll drive you. If you think you have time.”

“I have ‘til midnight,” she said dully. “Then it’s all over.”

“What do you mean? Your insurance runs out at midnight?” This was, by far, the most uncomfortable conversation I’d had with a woman since Jesse broke up with me. 

“No. I...I wanted to talk to Madame Kinsia about…” She bowed her head. “I did something really, really stupid.”

Ok. I am not, by nature, a compassionate guy. I don’t kick stray dogs or anything, but I really don’t like people gooping me all up with their emotional issues. I’m not a hugger. If I see someone crying, I just sorta cross the street ratehr than offer them a hanky. It’s shitty, I get it. But I wanted to make that clear. Judge away.

“I bet you can fix it,” I offered lamely. “And, hey, maybe this isn’t the best time to beat yourself up. Your body’s about to do that anyway. I really think you need to go to the hospital.” I nodded to the duffel she carried. “Is that your go bag?”

Dazedly, she looked at the duffel she was still clutching like mad. “No, it’ I guess. I don’t know. I just grabbed whatever stuff I thought could help before I came here.”

It’d been a few minutes, and no contraction, so I figured that meant she couldn’t be far along...dialated...whatever. “All right, let’s do this: you tell me what you were gonna talk to Aunt Mackie about, and we’ll sort it, and then I’ll drive you to the hospital. Ok?”

She nodded slowly. “Ok. But they aren’t going to let me go anywhere. Not now. Not when it’s started.”

I had to keep her on track. “Lady, miss, uhm….”

“Polly,” she muttered.

“Oh, hey, nice. Polly, then. What were you going to tell my Aunt?”

“I was going to tell her that I promised to give my baby to the faeries.”

“Why in the living hell would you do that?!” I couldn’t believe those were the words coming out of my mouth. But four years studying folklore reared their anthropologic head before I could be reasonable.

Polly started to cry. “I know! I know! I was so stupid!”

I gave myself a mental backhand. “Wait, wait. No. It’s fine. I know Aunt Mackie is big into that sort of stuff, but I didn’t mean to say that. There are no faeries. I’m sure you and my Aunt talked about it, but it doesn’t matter. It’s not real. It’s not something that happens. It’s fine, Polly.” I chuckled ruefully. “Nothing is going to happen.”

And, of course, the thunder came again. Louder.

It made Polly flinch. “Yes it is. I know it is. And I came here so she could help save my baby, and no one’s here and I’m in so much trouble…”

“Hey, listen,” I said, as soothingly as I could. Really not good at this stuff. “It’ll be fine. I’ll tell you exactly what’s going to happen: you’re gonna tell me where your hospital is; I’m gonna get us into my car, and we’re gonna head there where you’ll have a beautiful baby...uhh, whatever.”

“Girl,” she snuffled.

I nodded. “Awesome. A sweet little girl. And you’ll spend midnight with her in your arms, worn out but happy, and tomorrow will be the start of your brand new life with your daughter. Ok?”

Polly looked at me askance a moment, but finally sniffed hard and ceased the waterworks. “Ok.”

Wildly relieved, enough so that I didn’t even mind the idea of taxi’ing a stranger to the hospital, I smiled. “Ok. Lemme get Layla inside for the night and we’ll head out.”

So, I headed to the back door and opened it. Like a shot, Layla bounded in. I had no idea she could move that fast. She galloped over to Polly, who laboriously lowered herself to put her arms around the massive dog. “Layla! Aww, I’m so glad I get to see you before we go!”

“Taking Polly to the hospital, Layla,” I informed the canine conversationally. “Be back in a bit. Ready?” I asked Polly.

With a bit of a heave she got herself to her feet and nodded. I went to the front door.

As I reached for the handle, there was a blur of motion and a bump against my knees. A moment later I was face to face with Layle, blocking my way.

“Layla,” I chuckled, “it’ll be half an hour, max.” Again, my hand went for the door.

And Layla growled.

I know, I know. Dogs growl. But not Layla. She never did. Maybe, if she was really upset - someone stepped on her tail or spilled her kibble or a lizard got away from her in the back yard - she’d chuff very softly under her breath. But never growl. Never.

“Whoa, hey,” I murmured. I was a little scared, to be honest. “Layla, easy. What’s the matter with you?”

Layla growled low again. I took a breath and tried to sidestep her, only to be met with a real, honest-to-God snarl. A vicious one. With teeth. It was a like a different dog.

It made me step back instinctively. “What the hell?” 

Layla looked wild. Her big paws were planted apart, her head low, her back arched and the hackles on her fur rising. Her dark eyes glinted, and her lips curled back to show her teeth. I was inching away from ‘scared’ toward an actual fear for mine and Polly’s safety. “Layla,” I said, in as low and stern a voice as I could, “stop that.”

It worked about as well as I thought it might. She didn’t even blink.

I sighed. “Ok. Whatever. We’ll go out the back.”

It was like Layla understood me. She took a step forward and snarled again, a clear indication that she planned to follow me and stop me no matter what. I shook my head, baffled and uneasy. “I don’t get it.”

“They’re here already.” Polly’s voice was hushed with fear, and she set her duffel bag down slowly. “Layla knows it. She doesn’t want us to leave, because they’ll get us.”

I pinched the bridge of my nose and took a slow breath. “This is getting crazy.” I backtracked mentally, took a second. “Right. I’m calling 9-1-1.”

Fishing my phone from my pocket, I touched the emergency button and held the phone to my ear. After two rings, there was a soft ‘click’ and silence.

“You have got to be kidding me,” I muttered, and tried again. Same thing. And again. Two rings, click. I lowered my phone and looked at the pregnant woman. “Polly. What’s going on?”

She started to answer, then a contraction hit and a grimace choked the words dead. She pitched forward a little and I darted to catch her, steadying her with my hands on her shoulders. “Oh my God,” I muttered.

“I need to sit down,” she whimpered.

A first twinge of panic hit. “Polly, Polly, listen to me,” I said, my voice getting a bit quick and squeaky. “We can’t do this here. We can’t. It’s not sterile, I’ve got zero idea how to deliver a baby, it’s dangerous…”

“It doesn’t matter,” she wheezed through the pain, “they’re going to take her anyway.”

I felt a nudge against my leg. Looking down, I saw Layla, back to her old self. She gazed up at me with those fathomless brown eyes and whined gently. I understood.

“Right. Let’s get you upstairs into bed,” I said to Polly. Wrapping her arm around my neck, I waited for her expression to relax before I started moving. Slowly, I maneuvered her up the staircase, steps creaking  one by one. Layla followed behind solemnly. 

My Aunt’s room, mine for the time being, was laden with overspill of the shop. She had a crystal ball on the dresser, candles on the bedside table, dream catchers peppering the walls, a poster depicting the chakras. It smelled of dried sage and sandalwood. Polly smiled to see it. “This is nice,” she decided immediately.

“Not as nice as a hospital room, but we’ll make it work,” I answered. “Are you ok to be alone a minute? Aunt Mackie has big ol’ nightgowns in the drawers somewhere, and you can change and get into bed.” I went to the small closet, opening it and tugging loose two spare pillows, which I placed with the others at the head of the bed. “There - you can prop up. I’ll go get some ice water.” She was just standing there, looking around the room. “Polly?” Her attention came back to me. “Ok to change and get into bed?”

“Yeah,” she assented, nodding. “Just, uhm, don’t be too long.”

“Layla will stay with you.” I didn’t have to check; I knew the dog wasn’t leaving Polly’s side for anything. When Polly nodded again, I took my leave.

Being alone for a minute was a blessed thing. I could think. As I walked back down stairs toward the kitchen, I started to prep a mental list. Somewhere in the shop there had to be something useful. As I wound my way through the first floor, I saw that Polly’s duffel still sat on the floor where she’d set it down. I knelt beside it and unzipped it, peering inside. It hosted a big, comprehensive first aid kit, three white towels, a swaddle baby blanket, a baby outfit, two bottles and a can of formula. I was impressed - Polly wasn’t a dummy. She really had prepared, even if out of delusion.

I passed the bookshelves and paused to look them over. Sure enough, there was something: ‘Sacred Birth - A Wiccan’s Guide to New Life’. I gave it a quick flip-through. There was a lot of hokum about essential oils and Goddess chanting, but a chunk of the book actually went through the stages of labor and delivery. It wasn’t a how-to, but now I could figure out what was supposed to happen and when. Just had to flick away the New Age fluff.

Duffel and book in tow, I went into the kitchen. It was quiet, and I knew Layla would immediately alert me to anything amiss, so I took the time to do some prep work. Ice water, yes, but also some honey and bread, an apple, a can of ginger ale and napkins. 

As I was arranging the items on a tray fished out from a cupboard, there was a light tapping against the window above the sink. I looked, but it was pitch-black outside. For the first time, I noticed a drizzle had started. For a moment, I stood poised and silent, staring at the window. Nothing happened. I was about to heft up the tray and leave when a distinct -thud- came against the glass. This time, I could see - some sort of object on the outside sill. Small, boxy, brown. I again waited, but there was nothing else. I went over and, with effort, lifted up the bottom pane slightly, just enough to ease the object inside.

It was a box, made out of unfinished wood, cedar maybe. The lid fit seamlessly atop it. Lifting it off revealed a nest of green leaves in which nestled a bracelet. I’d never seen anything like it. It was made of what seemed to be spun threads of pale pink gold, dozens of them, threaded with beads I could guarantee were diamonds. Each bead was cupped by filigree leaves of a green metal I couldn’t recognize. It was stunning. Tucked into a corner was a larger leaf rolled up. I took it out and unfurled it. Delicate lettering had been scratched into the leaf.

For Polly, a token of preemptive thanks for her compliance with our bargain. - Bhan

I didn’t really know how to react to that, so I put the lid back on, added the box to the tray’s contents, and took all the plunder upstairs.

Layla was curled up on the bed at Polly’s feet, not asleep but keeping a dutiful watch over the room. Polly looked a little paler, and seemed more tired than when I’d left her. I arranged the tray on the bedside table, and she looked over the items with interest. “What’s that?” she asked, pointing to the box.

“A present for you, apparently.” I shrugged, keeping my voice way more nonchalant than I felt.

She took up the box and opened it. A gasp came at the sight of the bracelet, and then she took out the leaf-note and read it. Instantly, her expression darkened. With a soft grunt, she hurled the box at the wall, where it hit and lost its contents, the leaves and jewelry spilling across the floor.

“Not up to your standards?” I asked.

She spoke through tightened lips. “They’re trying to buy me off. Trying to dazzle me. Fat chance, the bastards.”

I sighed, popped the tab of the ginger ale and held the can out to her. “I think I’m ready to head about all this,” I said as she accepted the soda and took a sip. “I’m still not sure where I am as far as believing this craziness, but I wanna know the story anyway.”

Polly considered, but finally nodded. “Ok. This is what happened.”