It had taken some effort to convince Mom, but even if it was after dark, Yvette needed to take Mary to the playground. Mom had objected that it would be empty, that it would be dangerous, and that Mary was grounded anyway, so she had no business going anywhere. Yvette's response was that of course Mary would never be left alone, and it wasn't so she could play. It was so Yvette could have a heart-to-heart with her little sister about her behavior.
Though even that wasn't entirely true.
Throughout the drive, Yvette kept glancing through the mirror in the backseat. Mary sat in a sullen slump, staring out the window. Earlier today her first-grade teacher had caught her yanking a classmate's hair bands right off her head. Last week their brother Michael had caught her setting one of Dad's books on fire. And the week before that, she'd gotten into a fight on the playground at Tate Park—the same one they were going to. Mary had never acted like this before, and no one could explain what had gotten into her. Was someone picking on her? Was something wrong with her? Was something wrong with the family?
Yvette knew, though. She'd been the same sort of little hellion when she was a kid, and if her theory was correct, it was for the same reason. And that reason was at that playground.
"You hate me, don't you?" Mary groaned from the back.
"Nobody hates you," Yvette said. "We're just disappointed. You know perfectly well that what you've been doing isn't right. If we can get this to stop, then everybody can be happy, including you."
"But what're we going to the playground for?"
"There's something I want to check out, and I want you to help me. You know, I used to go to that same playground when I was little. I loved to climb that tree in the middle of the field."
"I know. You've told me."
"Right. But there's something I used to do there. Someone I used to play with. I want to tell you about her, but we need to do it alone."
Mary curled up her arms and legs, shivering. There was definitely something at that playground she didn't want Yvette to see.
Yvette parked on the curb, beneath the glow of the street lights. It was late enough that she didn't have to pay the meter. There were still plenty of people in the park, even with children, but they were mostly biking or picnicking or walking. The playground on the other side of the field was nearly empty. Mary hunched over, clutching Yvette's hand as they crossed the field. "Yvette," she said, "I don't wanna go to the playground."
"Look, I'm sorry, but we need to settle this once and for all. There's something Mom and Dad and Michael don't know about in that playground, isn't there? Something that gives you all these bad ideas?" Yvette decided it was time to drop the real bombshell. "Does the name 'Ocera' ring a bell?"
Mary gasped, and shuddered, and squeezed Yvette's hand.
"I knew it," Yvette said. "Look, Mary, I met Ocera when I was a little girl, too. She wasn't any different back then. She told me the same things, got me into the same kind of trouble. If you don't want to get into any more trouble, we have to deal with Ocera."
Mary dug her heels into the ground. "No! Ocera's my friend!"
"I'm not going to hurt her. I just need to talk to her." Yvette took Mary around the slide, through the swings, to a circle of white mushrooms near a line of trees. "Yeah, I figured." She dropped to one knee and wrapped her arm around Mary. "Let's see how much I remember… ruiden… shiu… moha emao."
The mushrooms began to glow. Lines of light formed a set of overlapping diamonds in the center. A tiny young woman, only six inches tall, fluttered on dragonfly wings up from the design. Her skin was blue like a glacier, and her hair was a bright neon pink. "Mary! What a surprise!" Her voice was like a piccolo, just as Yvette remembered.
"Good evening, Ocera," Yvette said.
Ocera took one look at Yvette and fluttered back. "What? A grown-up? Mary, I told you—"
"It's my sister," Mary said. "And she said she knows you."
"I'm Yvette. You remember me, don't you? I'm a little bigger now, but ten years will do that to you."
"Yvette… Yvette…" Ocera swayed back and forth in the air. "Where have I heard that…"
Yvette grabbed Ocera's ankle. "You know perfectly well who I am." Ocera flapped her wings furiously, but couldn't break free.
"Stop!" Mary cried. "You'll hurt her!"
"Right. Wouldn't want to do that." Yvette released Ocera. "Let me jog your memory, Ocera. It was at this same playground. You appeared only to me, and to two other kids. You told a little boy to pee on that tree in the middle of the field. You told a girl to bite her older brother on the arm. And you told me to throw a dog turd at another kid."
"Whoa, really?" Mary said.
"That's just for starters, Ocera. You told us you'd teach us magic if we did what you said."
"Look, I play with a ton of kids around here," Ocera said. "You can't expect me to remember every one."
"Yeah, but nobody did more than me. I shoplifted for you. I started fights for you. I came this close to burning down my father's tool shed for you. We're both lucky I came to my senses in time."
"Oh, Yvette!" Ocera twirled in the air. "I was just thinking about you a week ago! Your name was on the tip of my tongue!"
"I'll bet it was. You know, I had to convince myself you weren't real. I told my parents an imaginary friend made me do it, and that I already beat her up. I thought I was done with you. And now you're after my sister?"
"Your sister, eh? I guess I do see a resemblance. You have the same chin."
"I'm not joking around, Ocera. What'll it take to keep you from ever coming back here?" Yvette picked a mushroom, and the light in the cap instantly went out. "This?"
"It'll grow back. But why get rid of me? All I'm doing is answering when people call. Remember all the fun we had? All the games we played?"
"They weren't fun, and they weren't games. I was just easily impressed because I was a little girl and I was talking to a fairy. You think I enjoyed those things you got me to do? I was terrified! I only did it because of what you promised. Mary, be honest, did you have fun doing anything Ocera asked?"
Mary tightened her lips. She didn't answer.
"Oh like she's gonna tell you," Ocera said. "She knows she's in trouble. You think she won't just blurt out whatever you want to hear?"
"Look, this isn't just about Mary. Even if I keep you away from her, it's not going to stop you from corrupting other kids." Yvette leaned closer. "Now, I do think we can resolve this like adults, Ocera. There's no reason for this to get ugly. How do I get you to leave these kids alone?"
"Hm." Ocera crossed her arms and drifted down on top of one of the mushrooms. "Maybe you could do me one last favor."
"Nope. No favors. You do your own dirty work."
"What, I'm supposed to get nothing out of this? Negotiations are all about give-and-take. There's gotta be a way to make us both happy."
"What do you even get out of this? Out of making small children do bad things? Do you feed off of bad feelings or something? Or do you just think it's funny?"
"Oh no no no, nothing like that." Ocera flew up in front of Yvette's face. "I do benefit from it. It's not just for fun. Can you guess why?"
Yvette paused to think. It was difficult, with Ocera zipping to and fro in front of her. "If I guess, will you leave?"
"Not until my favor is done."
Mary said, "Do you sell bad feelings?"
"No, but I like the way you think," Ocera said. "Neither of you will ever guess."
Yvette mulled over the possibilities. Ocera didn't gain strength from bad deeds. She didn't get any money out of it. So what good does a child committing arson do her? Would she grow to giant size? Would she make something out of the bad feelings? Would she win her freedom from something?
If it was freedom, freedom from what?
Yvette picked at the mushroom Ocera had been sitting on, right out of the ground, extinguishing the light inside. Ocera flickered like the screen on an old TV set. She might have done that before, but Yvette's attention had been on the mushrooms themselves.
There was one thing Yvette had never seen Ocera do.
"Ocera," she said, "have you ever left this circle?"
"What do you mean?"
"Can you actually get away from these mushrooms? Every time I've ever seen you, mushrooms are around."
"Hey, you're right," Mary said. "I never saw you leave here, either."
"What, you think I'm not powerful enough?" Ocera said. "You think I can be limited by a bunch of mere mushrooms?"
"So do it," Yvette said. "I dare you."
"Hey, I do the daring around here."
"So do something daring. Just go over there, to the sandbox."
Ocera gave her an angry look, then flew over to the outer edge of the circle. She got about a foot past the mushrooms, and simply hung in the air as if something had grabbed her leg. Her wings became almost invisible as she flapped faster and faster.
She let out a huff, then turned toward Yvette and Mary. "You see? I can leave."
"But not very far," Yvette said. "Do your favors have something to do with that?"
"All right, you got me," Ocera said. "I'm trying to gain full access to your world. Ever since King Oberon sealed all the portals for everybody, the best I can do is appear in this ring. But it turns out those 'bad feelings' you mentioned are a potent energy source! If I harvest enough of them, I can break the seal, and go wherever I want."
Mary began to sob. "So… so you weren't gonna teach me magic?"
"No she wasn't," Yvette said. "She was just using you."
"It's not like that!" Ocera said. "Mary, I am going to teach you magic, just as soon as I can break through. I just need you to do one more bad thing. Something that makes you feel really bad."
Yvette waved her arm between her sister and the fairy. "Hold on. Something isn't adding up. You're telling me a child's guilt and shame is powerful enough to break that seal, but you, an actual fairy, aren't?"
"Energy's always gotta come from somewhere."
"Right, but what kind of magic were you planning to teach Mary? Or me?"
"Really, really awesome magic! Like you wouldn't believe!"
"It's powerful magic," Yvette said, "but it can't break the seal."
"Not one set by King Oberon."
"But when my baby sister regrets what she did, that's powerful enough?"
"It's… different." Ocera put her hands behind her back.
"You don't actually know any magic, do you?"
"I know some."
"Um… well… I can do this." Ocera's body became completely transparent. "See?"
"You were gonna teach me how to do that?" Mary said.
"Well, it's kinda the sort of thing only fairies can do." Ocera faded back into sight.
Yvette said, "So you actually have nothing at all to teach anybody. Except maybe the depths of their own souls."
Ocera sank down toward the ground.
"What did you even want to do in our world? Business? Pleasure? Is King Oberon oppressing you or anything?"
"Not really. He's no Queen Mab, but he's okay. I mostly just, you know, think maybe I could do a better job. And I've heard your world has a lot of iron. Could've been useful but…" Ocera sighed.
"I see," Yvette said. "Okay. So we've figured out why you want us to do you a favor. Now tell us, what do we need to do?"
Ocera sat cross-legged on the grass. "Fine. Okay. Do this, and I will stop answering the Ruiden call. I'll just have to find some other way to visit your world. Maybe there's a way I can smuggle myself through."
"Want us to get you an iron?" Mary said.
"What, like, for laundry? No, no, I don't need an iron, I need iron ore. You don't own any mines, do you?"
"Afraid not," Yvette said.
"So do this," Ocera said. "Take a picture of Mary and me, together."
"That's it. I don't want her to start thinking I'm an imaginary friend."
"If you say so. Mary, how does that sound? Want a picture with Ocera?"
Mary nodded. "Okay!"
"All right, then." Yvette dug out her phone. She positioned Mary in front of the circle of mushrooms, with Ocera over her shoulder. The camera on her phone focused, but Yvette didn't take the picture just yet. "Mary, grab some of Ocera's hair. Ocera, grab some of Mary's hair."
Mary leaned further over the mushrooms so Ocera could reach her without straining, and pinched a lock of pink hair in her fingers. Ocera, in turn, wrapped her hands around a lock of Mary's hair. Yvette figured this would make it harder for her or Mary to someday shrug off as Photoshopped.
"Say cheese," Yvette said.
They did, with big, broad, toothy smiles, and she took the picture.
"Okay, then," Ocera said. "A deal is a deal. I will never appear at this playground again. Been nice knowing you. Have a wonderful evening!" Ocera touched her toes to the ground on the design in the circle. The lines and mushrooms intensified their glow, then faded. Ocera was now nowhere to be seen.
On the way back to the car, Mary said, "I don't understand why we couldn't just give her some iron."
Yvette unlocked the doors. "Look, Mary, I'm not so sure she wanted to do anything nice with that iron. We're better off just taking the photo." She made sure Mary got buckled in. "Are you going to cause any more trouble from now on?"
"Glad to hear it." Yvette straightened her back. She actually had a positive moral influence on her little sister! Between this and getting her license, she definitely felt more adult now. "And if you ever see anything else strange or mystical, you come talk to me first, okay?"
Yvette climbed into the driver's seat.
"Can I see that picture?" Mary said, then quickly added, "Please?"
"Very good. Here you go." Yvette gave Mary the camera with the photo queued up and started the car. Mary chuckled. "Is it that funny?"
Mary held the phone out to her. "Here. See her tongue sticking out?"
Yvette took a closer look at the photo. Ocera was indeed sticking her tongue toward the camera. Yvette could have sworn that fairy was only smiling when the photo was actually taken. She was certain of it.
"Mary," she said, "you'll tell me if you see Ocera again, won't you?"
"And you won't listen to a thing she says?"
"Good." Yvette drove home, eager to tell Mom and Dad she'd accomplished her mission.