Devon was a princess. She knew she was a princess because her parents kept telling her so. Princesses were supposed to be loved, but now she knew her parents hated her. They must do because princesses were supposed to be beautiful and have beautiful things, but they’d given her something totally ugly, like completely horrible, disgusting, yuck. Today was her seventh birthday, and she’d told them what she wanted. She’d actually drawn pictures and stuff, and still they’d given her that thing. It was almost as if they were stupid or something.
They had to be punished, so she’d run away from her little party. Now she sat by their lake, staring at her reflection in its still water while the fingers of one hand ran through the long, brown hair tumbling over her shoulder. Her reflection stared back at her, but she wasn’t terribly interested in looking at herself right now. Running away from her party wasn’t enough. She wanted her parents to feel really, really sorry, like more sorry than they’d ever felt before.
She could run away some more. She could hide out in the woods for the night. Think how worried, and sorry, they’d be then. They’d come looking for her. They wouldn’t find her, of course. She was much too smart for that. They’d call the police, and the police would organize a search with volunteers coming from everywhere. And the police and the volunteers would search and search, probably even sending a diver out into the lake. And then, just as the police and the volunteers were standing around not knowing what to do next and her parents were crying because they were so, so sorry, she would just wander along home and tell them how she’d fallen asleep inside a dead tree. She knew exactly which one it would be as well. Her parents would look really stupid then, right in front of all the policemen and the volunteers, and it would serve them right too.
She was—what was the word her parents kept using when they drove through poor neighborhoods with all the doors locked?—deprived. That was it. She was like all those other people who couldn’t have what they wanted. It wasn’t fair is what it was. It wasn’t fair that all the people like her couldn’t have what they wanted, and the reason for it was perfectly obvious. It was because other people, like her parents, didn’t listen. All they did was make stupid rules that stopped all the people like her from having what they wanted, probably because they were stupid too.
God couldn’t have wanted the world to be like that because God wasn’t stupid. God was kind and loved everyone. No. It was the stupid people who did it, and for some reason, God couldn’t stop them from being stupid. Perhaps God needed someone to do it for him, someone like Jesus; only Jesus didn’t want to because last time he tried everyone had been nasty to him. Well, if Jesus didn’t want to do it, maybe she could. She was a princess, after all, and princesses were supposed to make everyone be nice to each other; except she didn’t know how to do any of that. God would have to show her, if that was what God wanted, of course.
Suddenly she heard a loud whoosh, followed by an even louder splash. Startled, Devon looked up and saw the middle of the lake boiling. Ripples spread outwards, then turned back on themselves, crissing and crossing until all the lake’s surface was seething. The waves lapped at her glittery pumps, seeping in between her toes, even wetting the hem of her pink dress, but that wasn’t why she stood up. No. She stood up because something actually, really magic started to happen. A head rose, followed by a body, all of it as seamlessly silvered as chrome. Though white where it mirrored the sky, deep greens and blues smeared its lower parts where it reflected the trees and the lake, and all the colors shifted constantly as it moved. It was almost like some knight from olden times, the kind that rescued princesses and made everyone live happily ever after. Dripping, it came to stand over her, but Devon wasn’t afraid because she knew what it was. It was her very own gift from God because God did want her to.
So, with a smile, she introduced herself. “Hi. My name’s Devon. What’s yours?”
Its head gazed down at her, from a body so tall that it was taller even than Daddy, and he was quite tall enough. Well, Devon thought it was gazing down at her, anyway. It was hard to tell, what with its big silver egg of a head having no eyes or mouth, or nose, or anything at all, really. Somewhere inside that silver egg it must be able to see her, because otherwise it wouldn’t be able to gaze down at her. Nor did it speak. Perhaps it couldn’t, what with it having no mouth. Or perhaps it didn’t understand. Everyone understood pointing, though, so she stretched out her arm.
“My home’s over there. Well, it’s not really my home. That’s in San Francisco. This is where we come on spring break so Mommy and Daddy can get away from the city. You should come with me because then they can see what the best gift in the whole world looks like.”
She held out a hand for it to take, but it didn’t seem to understand that either. This was difficult. She gazed at her reflection in its navel as she struggled with what to do. She couldn’t very well make the world a nicer place—well, not easily, anyway—if this gift from God didn’t understand talking or pointing or holding hands. Maybe it was a test. God liked to test people to find out if they were good or not. Well, that’s what Mommy and Daddy said, anyway. He must have decided she was good, because all of a sudden this gift stretched out a hand and folded its three thick fingers with blunt ends over hers, swallowing them entirely within its fist. The faintest of pinpricks followed, making Devon gasp, but she quickly forgot about it because the strangest feeling crept over her. First her arm and then her whole body glowed with it.
“Ooh! I feel all warm and cozy inside. Can you feel it too?”
Probably it did because its hand was just as warm and not at all hard like a knight’s armor would be. It was smooth and supple, almost like Jell-O wrapped in plastic, just squishy enough not to be yucky. Devon liked that too. It was making her feel super-happy inside, as if nothing bad could ever happen again, and she wanted more of it. The best way to do that was to make this gift her best friend.
When at last it released her hand and stood waiting for something, or so it seemed to her, she asked again, “So what is your name? Don’t you have one? Oh well. I’ll call you … let’s see … I’ll call you Auntie because I used to have an auntie who made me feel all warm and happy like you do. Her name was Rosita, but she went away. I don’t know why. Now let’s go see Mommy and Daddy. They’re going to be really, really surprised when they meet you.”
Up through sparse trees and tall grasses, she led the way. Auntie followed, her trail through the grasses indistinguishable from Devon’s despite her hugeness. On the other side of a wide lawn stood the house. It had two stories with a veranda that sheltered the big downstairs windows and sliding doors. A person who stood beneath it could look out through the trees all the way down to the lake.
As they crossed the lawn, Mommy rushed out to meet them. Mommy was pretty. With her long dark hair and dark eyes, everyone always said how much she and Devon looked alike. She was even prettier when she smiled, but she wasn’t smiling now. That must have something to do with the very big kitchen knife she held in her hand. At the very sight of it, Devon felt a chill creep over her.
Stopping some yards distant, Mommy gazed in horror at Auntie. “Oh my god, Devon. What is that?”
“This is Auntie. God gave her to me.”
Mommy shook her head. “No, sweetie, that thing didn’t come from God.”
Daddy appeared. He was handsome, like a prince—square-jawed with tousled, light-brown hair. He was dressed like Mommy in casual pants and a loose shirt, but he carried a hunting rifle and leveled it at Auntie as he walked up next to Mommy. At the sight of that, the chill within Devon deepened so that she felt like ice cream inside.
“Mark!” Mommy sounded more scared than horrified now. “What do we do?”
“Just … don’t do anything, okay? Stay calm and let me deal with it.” Daddy sounded really brave, just like a prince ought to. “Devon. Princess. Come over here; there’s a good girl.”
Instead, Devon frowned. “Why? Auntie isn’t hurting anyone. Auntie is going to make everyone be nice to each other.”
“My god, Mark. What is that thing?”
“Christ, Sarah, how the hell do I know? Now just shut up and let me deal with it, okay? Devon, be a good girl. Do as Daddy says and just step away from that … thing.”
“But why? She’s my gift from God. Don’t you want me to have a gift from God? Why don’t you want me to have something I actually like? Why are you always so mean? I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!”
As she howled her outrage, Devon’s insides turned icy cold and two globules of brilliant red fire appeared from over her right shoulder. She had seen falling stars streak soundlessly across the night sky. Rather like them, these globules streaked now, one each enveloping Mommy and Daddy in a glowing red cocoon. Somewhere some angry cats hissed, or so it seemed to Devon, and when they were done, both Mommy and Daddy were gone.
Wide-eyed, Devon looked up at Auntie. “Did you do that? Where have they gone? Is it somewhere nice? It must be, mustn’t it, or God wouldn’t have let you do it. That must be right. God wanted you to do it because he loves them, and now they’re with him, and he’s going to make sure they’re happy and have everything they want.”
Auntie’s only answer was the increasing warmth Devon felt. Despite that, she was still a little troubled. God was nice, and he loved everyone, or at least he did until they were bad. Mommy and Daddy weren’t bad, not as far as she knew anyway, and he wouldn’t have sent Auntie all the way here so she could do bad things. There must be another reason for making her parents disappear. It was hard to figure out what that reason might be. Then she realized that if God wanted her and Auntie to go out and make the world a nicer place, he wouldn’t have wanted her parents telling her to go to her room or anything like that. He was just making sure she wouldn’t have to worry about them when there was all the rest of the world to worry about, that was all. God really was clever like that, much cleverer than her, so she wouldn’t worry about it, just like he wanted. Besides, right now there was something far more important that maybe God hadn’t thought about.
“Do you know how to make dinner? Because I’m hungry.”
Auntie didn’t reply, not in any way at all. She simply stood there like a statue once again, as if she was waiting for something. It might be she was waiting to be told what to do, and it was up to Devon to tell her. That was probably right, what with God having given Auntie to her and not the other way around. It was just a pity God hadn’t thought to show her how to make dinner was all.
“Oh well, never mind. Let’s go into town. There are lots of places we can get dinner there.”
Through the late afternoon forest, they walked. Devon felt happy, eagerly pointing out things she thought were interesting or pretty so that Auntie might find them interesting or pretty too. There were all the big trees, and fallen trees, and the understory thick with ferns, and the singing of birds and all sorts of insects. All that was missing to make it quite wonderful was something magical, like a unicorn, and then suddenly there was one. It stood in the middle of a clearing, watching her. Really it was an elk. It was still adorably pretty, though, even if it did have too many wrong-shaped horns to be a unicorn. If Devon chose to think it was a unicorn, then it was, and nobody could say otherwise.
Slowly she walked toward it, wanting to pet it, and it didn’t run away. It snuffled at her and allowed her to stroke its nose until its ears pricked. Then it disappeared into the trees. At the same time, Devon’s insides chilled again. Somewhere above, she heard the chop-chop-chop of approaching helicopters. That was exciting. She wanted to watch the helicopters fly by overhead, but, for some reason, Auntie wouldn’t let her. Instead, she led Devon to stand beneath the wide boughs of a tree. There they waited until they couldn’t hear the helicopters anymore. Why Auntie should be so afraid of helicopters was a mystery. It must be something God had taught her.
By now, the shadows were lengthening. Devon and Auntie walked on until sounds of men came to them from another clearing. At the same time, the chop-chop-chop sound of another helicopter drew near. While Auntie stood transfixed, her featureless face looking up through the trees as it passed overhead, Devon walked on into the clearing. Two men sat beyond a small fire, both of them dressed as hunters, with bows close to hand. They, too, looked up at where the helicopter had flown by.
“That’s the second time today. What in the hell d’you think’s got them so excited?”
The second man answered with a shrug.
Devon noticed they also had a truck. On the back of that truck, they had a dead and bloodied elk. These men had killed a unicorn, and they were laughing about it. That was horrible, so horrible that Devon could only stare at it—until one of them noticed her.
“What the …? Where did you come from, sweetie?” he asked. “You lost or something, wandering around out here in the woods all alone? Or are you a princess who’s just escaped from an evil witch?”
He was trying to be nice, even if he did sound a bit creepy. At least he knew she was a princess. As for an evil witch, that was just silly. There were no evil witches around here that she knew of. There were some nasty unicorn killers, though, and that made her feel cold inside. “I’m not alone. Auntie is with me.”
“Yeah?” The second man peered into the trees behind her. He wasn’t nearly so nice. “Well, I don’t see anyone. Your auntie must be a shy one. Hey, Auntie, why don’t you come on out. We won’t bite cha, I promise.”
While Devon gave the second man an icy stare, the first leaned in toward him. “Hey, I know her. She’s that rich kid from up by the lake. Her daddy owns some big tech company down there in Silicon Valley or something like that.”
They exchanged a look, the kind of look grown-ups exchanged when they were thinking something kids weren’t supposed to know about. Whatever it was, they began to look at Devon very differently, almost as if she were a unicorn, until their eyes grew wide and their faces filled with horror.
“What in the name of—”
Silly unicorn killers! It wasn’t Jesus who came to stand at Devon’s shoulder. It was Auntie, and Devon watched as her red fire enveloped the men. Those angry cats hissed again, but they probably weren’t half as mad as Jesus would be, if he got mad at all, of course, because he surely loved unicorns too, and these two men had done a very bad thing.
With the nasty unicorn killers gone, Devon looked at the poor dead elk again. She understood by now that when she felt all warm inside, it was because Auntie was happy. When she felt cold, it was because Auntie was unhappy, and when she felt really cold, Auntie made people disappear. If Auntie could do that, send people to God and all, maybe she could bring them back too. Maybe she could bring the poor dead elk back to life. As hard as Devon thought about it, though, Auntie did nothing, and the elk stayed dead. Oh well. It had been worth a try.
In the growing gloom, they walked on, with Devon feeling increasingly sleepy. Sometime later, she yawned, and Auntie carried her while she slept. When she woke, Auntie set her down, and they walked hand-in-hand together along a forest track.
Devon saw a big fire up ahead. At the furthest edge of its light, she saw the boughs of trees and the gables and broken windows of an abandoned lodge. There were people too, sitting and standing around it. From a distance, they didn’t look like unicorn killers. They were far too noisy for that. Perhaps they were some kind of forest folk, like elves, who’d come out to play when no other people were around to see them. They looked like older boys and girls, four of them, dressed in jeans and jackets. Devon had never seen a real elf, so it might be they just looked like older boys and girls.
Either way, it was another moment of magic, what with the firelight in the middle of all that darkness and the little people all around it. How strange that, until Auntie had come along, Devon had never known such wonders were real. Her parents must’ve known because they often went out at night, leaving her alone with a babysitter. Perhaps the unicorn killer had been right; she had been imprisoned by an evil witch. Not her parents, of course, but all those babysitters who just sat there watching TV all night.
Not that any of that mattered anymore. What did matter was that the people were having some kind of party, and a party ought to mean food. Since by now she was really, really hungry, she wanted to join them. First of all, though, she looked up at Auntie long and hard. Auntie probably didn’t even know what a party was, and Devon was already beginning to feel the tiniest chill just looking at them. She didn’t want Auntie to ruin it all by making these people disappear.
“Don’t worry, Auntie. They’re just having a party. You don’t need to be unhappy at them.”
The chilliness receded, and Devon’s understanding grew. Auntie was listening to her. Auntie could be guided by her. Well, of course. God in all his cleverness had made Auntie like a puppy, and puppies needed to be trained or there would be horrible messes everywhere. Well, Devon would start training her right now. She would walk straight up to these people and make friends with them, and then Auntie would begin to understand.
At first, as she stepped into the firelight with Auntie at her shoulder, none of the boys and girls saw her. Perhaps it was the cans they were drinking from, or that strange pipe thing they were passing around that was giving off such a peculiar smell. As wonderful as all these things might be, what mattered to Devon was that she couldn’t see any food. It was a strange kind of a party that didn’t have food.
“Dude!” A skinny boy with shoulder-length blond hair was the first to see her. “Have I just lost a few months or something? It’s not Halloween, little girl. No trick or treating for you.”
Devon knew perfectly well it wasn’t Halloween. It was a silly thing to say, but then this boy did have a very silly grin on his face. So did all the others, for that matter.
“Whoa!” The second boy had short, dark hair. “What’s with the stormtrooper, bro?”
He sucked on the pipe and held his breath, which made him look even sillier.
“That’s Auntie.” Even though he didn’t seem at all interested, Devon explained, “God gave her to me so I could make everyone be nice to each other.”
“Shit, dude.” Devon looked a little shocked. The blond boy was surely old enough to know better than to use bad words like that. “You’re gonna make everyone be nice to each other. What are you? Some kinda Nazi or something?”
“I don’t know what a Nazi is. Are they nasty? Because they sound nasty.”
“Well, yeah!” one of the girls said. She also had blond hair, but hers was tied up in a ponytail. “Nazis are, like, racists and homophobes and transphobes and all that kinda stuff. They just wanna stop everyone from being free to be themselves.”
“Well. I can’t be one of them, then, because I want everyone to be happy and have everything they want.”
“Hell, yeah!” said the second girl. She had dusky skin and straight black hair. She also used bad words, but maybe that was just the way elves talked. “The sister’s gonna build a better world with justice for all, except the Nazis, of course, and the patriarchy, and the haters, and the pro-lifers. My body, my choice, right? You can count me in, sweetie.”
Devon didn’t know what any of that meant. Since they were all so much older than her, she would trust they knew what they were talking about. She would remember that Nazis were bad people, and so were all the others: the racists, the homophobes, the transphobes, and the pro-lifers and such. These were the nice people. They would be her new friends, and friends helped each other.
“Do you have anything to eat? Because I’m really hungry.”
“Aww, sweetie. Why didn’t you say so? I think we might still have some pizza left. Come on. Why don’t we go have a look?”
With her hand outstretched, the blonde girl started toward Devon. With every step she took, though, Devon felt the chill return. Auntie didn’t understand friends either. Auntie thought this girl was going to do something mean. If Devon didn’t stop her, Auntie would make this girl and all her friends disappear. She began to think very hard of nice things, like unicorns and fluffy bunnies, puppies, and popsicles. Gradually, the chill began to retreat. Auntie was obeying her. Just to be sure, Devon looked up at her big, shiny egg of a head glinting in the firelight. “Be nice, Auntie. From now on we only send Nazis to God because they’re nasty. Not like my parents. That was an accident, probably.”
“An accident.” The blonde girl, standing a few steps distant, looked a little concerned. “What do you mean by an accident? What did … Auntie … do to your parents?”
“Oh, she made them disappear. She didn’t mean to. She didn’t understand, is all, but I’m teaching her. From now on, she’ll only make the bad people disappear. Like the unicorn killers.”
That only made things worse.
“The unicorn killers?” The girl backed away, saying to the blond boy, “We gotta get outta here.”
“Get outta here?” he sniggered, too wrapped up in his silliness to notice her unease. “Why? We still got beer and, like, a whole bag of weed. Chill out, babe. We got all night.”
“Listen to me, will you? That thing—if I’m hearing her right, that thing kills people. We gotta leave now!”
The boy with the short, brown hair wasn’t listening either. “Of course it does, babe. It’s a stormtrooper. That’s, like, what they do. Look out! It’s reaching for its blaster.”
The dark-haired girl laughed too, but Devon could see the blonde girl was being very serious. She didn’t like Auntie at all. In fact, she was afraid of Auntie. That wasn’t good because she’d been the only one among them who’d actually listened to Devon, and the only one who’d offered to find Devon something to eat—until she got scared. It was time to leave before Auntie got scared too.
“Oh well. We’re going into town now. I hope you enjoy the rest of your party. Bye.”