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The Pixie Game

Anna Zumbro is a teacher who lives in Washington, D.C. Her fiction has previously appeared in Plasma Frequency, Fantasy Scroll Mag, and other publications. You can connect with her at annazumbro.com or on Twitter @annazumbro.

The rain has stopped shortly before the dismissal bell rings, and the ground is spongy and quivering with worms. Someone taps Gage's shoulder. He spins around and sees Dasha, her mouth upturned at some private joke.
"We're playing the pixie game. Want to come?"
It's the third time someone has talked to him at this school and the first time he's been invited to do anything. He follows her, half running, to the hedges surrounding the playground.
Iver and Jack are already waiting at the greenest part of the hedge. Gage has never spoken to either of them, but he's noticed that everyone laughs at Iver's jokes whether they're funny or not, that even fifth-graders defer to him in the lunch line.
Iver nods at Dasha and turns to Gage. He grins. "Hey, new kid. You go first."
"Okay." Gage approaches the hedge, ready to thrust his hand through the branches on the count of three. "Am I going against you?"
"What? Didn't you ever play before? Show him, Jack."
Jack puts his face close to the leaves and sticks out his tongue. Gage sees a rustle and a flash of green, then a tiny figure clinging to the tip of Jack's tongue before it retracts. Jack's cheeks bulge. His closed mouth forms a crooked line of disgust as his jaw moves up and down. Then he swallows.
"You ate it?" At Gage's old school, the pixie game meant putting your fingers into the bushes and waiting while the pixies bit and latched on. When you couldn't take it anymore, you pulled your hand out. If you had more than your opponent, you won. This way wasn't really a game. It was a dare.
Gage hates the sight of the pixies, with their glassy wings and tiny naked human limbs and horrible red-eyed insect heads. But this is his fifth school, and he knows the price of refusing a dare. He turns his face to the hedge and leans forward.
Even squinting cross-eyed, he can't see the pixie that bites him. He only feels the tiny fangs pierce his tongue, cold pinpricks like splinters of ice. He gasps and swallows, forgetting to chew. The creature is a lump of limbs and flapping wings in the back of his throat and Gage doubles over, gagging, trying to dislodge it one way or another. It would be okay if he coughed it up. Everyone would at least know he tried.
At last he stands, coughing a few more times to clear his throat.
"Dang, you downed it whole." Iver slaps him on the arm, and Gage knows he's in.
Dad prepares lamb-and-feta gözleme, Gage's favorite, for the third night in a row. A sharp pain stabs him in the stomach. It must be obvious that his pants are hanging loose, that his dinners have gone uneaten most nights for the past two weeks despite his artful rearrangements of food.
Gage cuts the pastry with the edge of his fork and feels the piercing pain again. He is almost hungry enough to eat, but not quite. Eating only makes it worse.
"Talked to your teacher today." Dad's voice is full of cheer, the kind that exists only to mask concern. "He said you seem like you're adjusting okay. Said you've made friends."
Gage nods. The day after swallowing the pixie, he sat at Iver's lunch table. Dasha and Jack fought to be his partner in gym class. Every day since he's enjoyed the kind of respect he only dreamed of at his other schools, yet loneliness grips his hand more tightly than ever. It is strange to be lonely, because now he is never alone, not even for a second.
"You don't seem happy, though."
Gage tries to smile. He knows Dad feels guilty about having to move each time he gets a promotion. He opens his mouth to tell his father this is the best school yet when the pixie jabs him again.
The librarian seemed bored when he asked how long pixies could survive in a person's stomach. The book he checked out held no answers, but one passage haunts him:
Like elephants and wolves, pixies mourn their dead. Gardeners often find pixie skeletons beneath cairns of sticks and leaves.
Dad spears the last piece of gözleme and pops it into his mouth. "So what's wrong?"
"Nothing. I'm just tired." Gage stands up and the world turns dark as he walks right into the floor.
"It's not an unusual game for children his age." Dr. Anand's voice swoops between stresses on not and unusual as she motions for Gage's father to sit down. She places her hand on Gage's shoulder and squeezes. "Usually it resolves itself. In this case, a simple surgical procedure will set him right."
She dims the lights to show them the X-ray of Gage's stomach and points out tiny white marks, identifying them as pixie bones. "And here's the skull," she adds, tapping a small white oval. "Gastric acid will have dissolved the rest, but pixie bones are notoriously durable." She smiles at Gage. "Don't worry. There's no chance it's alive."
Gage shifts in his seat. The sharp scratching in his stomach grows stronger, but he decides it's just nerves. He's never had surgery before.
In the operating room, a new doctor tells him to count backwards from 100. His eyelids grow heavy by 95. When he awakens, still counting, he sees Dad holding a teddy bear.
The pain has dulled to a ghost of its former self, but it is still there, a drumbeat keeping time to his heart.
Dr. Anand enters, holding a bag of tiny bones. "You can relax now. They're all gone. See?"
"Can I keep them?"
"I suppose."
Gage reaches out the hand that does not have an intravenous drip. He will return to the green hedge at school and build a tiny cairn of sticks and leaves. He hopes it will be enough.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, June 30th, 2015
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