Three frightening, goblin-like creatures with sharp teeth, glowing red eyes, and tattered clothing appear in a dark, misty environment.

'Fairy Lights'

by Christopher Stanley​

Caroline curses her clumsiness as the lightbulb smashes against the kitchen floor. It was supposed to last a lifetime, part of a new generation of energy efficient bulbs. As she steps down from the stool, she catches her reflection in the window, her triangular face peering out of the night sky. Tired eyes and bedraggled hair. She walks around the broken lightbulb to answer the phone in the lounge.

“Hello?”

The lounge sparkles in the rosy glow of the Christmas tree, light dancing across shelves of glittered greetings cards and tinselled ornaments. Felt stockings hang at an angle above the fireplace, and a trio of candle kings congregate in the centre of the coffee table, waiting to be lit. Caroline’s tried to make it perfect for her mum’s visit. She suspects it won’t be enough.

“Hi, Mum.”

When her dad was alive, he marched proudly in support of climate protests and campaigns to save the bees from government-sanctioned pesticides. Her mum would stay home and phone Caroline to complain. She said her husband was so busy trying to save the world, he never had time to replace the cracked bathroom window or fix the dripping tap in the kitchen. Somehow, it was always Caroline’s fault.

“Sorry, Mum, I didn’t realise you’d left a message.”

Three years after her dad’s fatal second stroke, Caroline still tiptoes through her mum’s phone calls, expecting to be blamed for everything.

“Yes, of course we can watch the King’s speech. No, I’m not expecting any other visitors. Yes, I’ll be here. If I’m not, the spare key is under the mat.”

The pinboard above the kitchen table is covered in faded newspaper clippings, sections of ordnance survey maps, and photos of mutilated animals. The previous weekend, Caroline had joined a small group of activists in a botched attempt to rescue half a dozen macaques from a laboratory in West London. She knows her mum wouldn’t approve. She can imagine her saying, “You’re just like your father.”

Once the call is over, Caroline fetches a brush to sweep the broken lightbulb into the folds of a local newspaper. On the floor, between shards of shattered glass, she spots something that shouldn’t be there: a pink-skinned creature the size of her thumb. The creature’s translucent wings remind her of the stories she read as a child—tales of Tinkerbell and the Cottingley Fairies. It looks like a miniature version of the decoration on top of her Christmas tree.

The following day, she stays home to study the creature through the glass walls of an old fish tank. She searches online for something, anything, that resembles the creature in her kitchen. She wants to tell someone but who can she trust? Part of her hopes the creature will die so she can bury it and move on. Trying to save the world is exhausting. Just for once, she’d prefer not to feel responsible for something she doesn’t fully understand.

Two days later, the creature sits up and inspects a small tear in the tip of its right wing. It moves like a miniature person—stretching, yawning, and rubbing its eyes. Caroline leans closer, exhilarated, feeling a strong desire to care for the creature. It flies at her, hard and fast, its little hands balled into fists. There’s a dull thunk as it hits the glass of the tank. Then it falls to the floor, unconscious.

Caroline places a saucer of winter berries in the tank, next to the folded-flannel bed on which she’s rested the creature’s sleeping body. When the creature next wakes up, it feasts. As it eats, a soft light shines from its abdomen.

Caroline remembers her failed attempt to rescue the macaques from the laboratory in West London. They’d expected to find a room of cages in a dark basement, the animals sedated, the air ripe with excrement. What they discovered instead was a warehouse full of shipping crates. Pallets of cardboard boxes with Warm White and Soft Glow printed on the sides. A commercial enterprise of some magnitude.

She retrieves a scrunched-up newspaper from the bin and unrolls it across the kitchen worktop, revealing the remains of the broken lightbulb. Where there should be a light board with a grid of LEDs, she finds two terminals, but no filament.

Could the creature have been inside the bulb?

She searches the pinboard until she finds a photo of the doctor whose laboratory she broke into—the one with rimless glasses and long hair retreating from his forehead. She presses the photo against the glass wall of the fish tank. The creature sees it and retreats into a corner, its wings curled protectively around its body.

Caroline grabs her rucksack and balaclava and takes the bus to West London. The night air is cool, threatening rain. Sitting on a damp embankment, she watches the doctor through a window as he studies the screen of an electron microscope. She wonders how many other crooked doctors there are in the world, playing God for some commercial advantage. Whatever she does, she knows it’ll never be enough.

The doctor leaves the laboratory after midnight and she surprises him, using darkness and the threat of a Taser-blast to persuade him to accompany her back inside. He’s a flimsy man who begs her not to hurt him. Inside, strip lights hum over squeaky-clean floors. Monitors perch on gunmetal tables. Caroline ties the doctor to a chair with electrical cable and shows him a photo of the creature in her tank.

His eyes tell her everything. “It shouldn’t have survived. You must kill it.”

“Where are the others?”

When the doctor doesn’t answer, Caroline pushes his head back and slaps the glasses from his face. Tears flood the doctor’s eyes. When she presses the Taser against his chest, he nods towards a door at the side of the lab.

“In there.”

Caroline unclips the security pass from his pocket.

“It’s not what you think,” he calls after her. “They’re not designed to exist in the wild. It should have died on exposure to the air. It should have turned to dust.”

Beyond the door, the only light comes from a couple of green exit signs. A thick, swampy smell turns Caroline’s stomach. Rows of glass tanks stretch to the far wall. She approaches the nearest one and uses her sleeve to wipe away the condensation.

“We couldn’t satisfy the new energy regulations using conventional methods,” says the doctor. “Bio-engineering was the only viable solution.”

Inside the tank there are hundreds of the creatures, their unconscious bodies piled on top of one another like a mass grave. But they’re not dead. Caroline can feel the blood burning through her veins. There’s no way she can leave them like this.

“They’ll die,” says the doctor. “If you free them, they’ll turn to dust. And if they don’t…” The words catch in his throat. “We haven’t tested for this.”

Another product rushed to market with inadequate controls. No doubt the company lawyers have protections in place to keep the shareholders safe. It’ll be the consumers who suffer the consequences. Taxpayers who clean up the mess.

Caroline knows she can’t save the world, not on her own, but she might be able to inspire others. And she can honour the memory of her dad while she’s doing it.

The city is sleeping by the time she leaves the laboratory. The adrenaline has left her body and she’s exhausted. She needs to lay low for a couple of days, so she checks in to a hotel near Oxford Street. The thought of Christmas shopping doesn’t hold much appeal but at least it’s an alibi. She keeps the television on but there’s nothing in the news. Eventually the creatures will be discovered, probably gorging on berries at the bottom of someone’s back garden. By then it won’t be her problem.

She wonders about the creature in her fish tank. Did she leave enough food? Enough water? As darkness descends on the third day, she decides to return home.

The door to her flat is closed and locked. She enters quietly, listening to the silence. In the kitchen, the cupboard doors have been ripped from their hinges. The contents—tins and packets of food—appear to have exploded across the worktop. The fish tank is on the floor, smashed. The mess reminds Caroline of how the laboratory looked when she left.

She approaches the lounge door, hardly daring to breathe. Great shards of glass hang from the window frame. The cool December breeze pricks like daggers against her skin.

The creature must have broken the window when it escaped from her flat. Except the glass has fallen inwards.

She hears a sound: a wet and warty click.

Something moves near the top of the Christmas tree. A cousin of the shadows that reaches around the branches as it claws its way up onto to its perch. The creature is bigger now, about the size of the fairy it has displaced, with grey skin and leathery wings. Ribbons of drool drip from its lips.

And then Caroline sees the others. The ones she liberated from the laboratory, that must have entered through her window. They bleed from dark corners, one becoming ten becoming dozens, all of them transformed.

Their stomachs glow in anticipation of a meal.

Caroline remains perfectly still. The creature in her fish tank ate fruit, so there’s no reason to believe they’re carnivorous. No reason apart from their teeth. Still, she’s bigger than they are. If she doesn’t threaten them, they might leave her alone.

She counts to ten in her head.

It’s working. They haven’t attacked. She’s about to risk a step towards the flat door when the doorbell rings. The creatures shuffle and sniff the air.

Go away.

The doorbell rings again.

Caroline can’t breathe deeply enough to satisfy the panic in her lungs. Her legs feel weak. Her chest is unbearably tight. The creatures watch her, their eyes glowing the same colour as their stomachs.

“Caroline?” says a shrill voice from the other side of the flat door. “It’s your mum.”

Fuck.

There’s a crash as one of the creatures knocks a ceramic Santa off the shelf in the lounge. The statue hits the edge of the coffee table, its head cleanly severed from its body.

Everything shifts, as though the lounge itself jumped in shock, and Caroline is sure the creatures will attack. She braces herself, ready for a thousand tiny fangs to pierce her flesh, for her head to be ripped from her shoulders as her body is dragged through the window and dropped to the icy pavement below.

But the creatures settle again and resume watching.

That was too close.

Caroline’s mum wiggles the spare key into the lock. “I heard something. I’m coming in.”

The creatures lean forward. It’s hard to be sure but Caroline would swear they’re grinning. She needs to warn her mum. She’s about to speak when she feels something warm and wet on her neck.

Slowly, ever so slowly, she looks up. Above her, one of the creatures hangs from the kitchen light, saliva spilling from its mouth. Caroline notices a small tear in its wing. She searches its eyes for recognition, but all she sees is hunger.

The flat door opens.

“Are you there, dear?”

And now Caroline runs, determined to stop her mum from entering. She races into the hall, where her mum is already halfway through the door, Rudolph’s nose flashing brightly in the middle of her jumper.

The creatures come for them, teeth bared, claws outstretched.

“Merry Christmas, dear,” says Caroline’s mum, her smile brimming with festive cheer.

Before she can say anything else, Rudolph’s nose is ripped from her jumper, its flashing light extinguished forever.

About the author

Christopher Stanley

Christopher Stanley is the author of numerous prize-winning flash fictions, the darkest of which can be found spreading misery and mayhem in his debut collection, The Lamppost Huggers and Other Wretched Tales (The Arcanist, June 2020).

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