Her father had hated the thought of growing old, of losing himself to a failing mind and body. How many times had he insisted “Just take me out back and shoot me” with a smile on his face? The older he got, the less it sounded like a joke, and the more it stabbed at her heart.
It was the order of things, she knew. Barring some kind of tragedy, children outlived their parents. And he had fathered her late in his life. But he was her only constant in this world, the one she could always lean on, always go to. There was nothing she could do to keep him, though, so she promised she would let him go before his memory failed.
She waited longer than she should have, perhaps. But she was planning, and truthfully, she did not want to let him go. So, on the day she deemed his last, when he still recognized her but remembered less every day, she brought him to her home at the edge of the Woods.
She had not been raised with the tales of the Hidden Neighbors, but she had studied them, found them, and later grew a relationship with them. She knew she was not truly safe, just as one who keeps and trains lions is never truly safe, but she knew how to protect herself.
She made him coffee and fed him his favorite foods. She told him all the stories he had told her, and for a while, she had her father back. Her siblings knew their father was leaving, but they did not know her plan. They couldn’t. She was not allowed to tell them.
When the sun set and day faded to dusk, she helped her father into the copse of trees she would never truly trust. She began to tell him the stories she could not tell anyone else. She told him of how she’d found the Hidden Neighbors, how she’d met and bargained with them, and why she lived on their border. He took it all in stride, far better than she had thought he would.
“You want me to meet them.” He’d said, nodding.
He paused. “I might not know much, but I know they won’t heal me without a price you can’t pay, sweetheart.”
“I know.” He didn’t question her further. She took him to a clearing that faced a weeping willow, and sat him on a boulder.
They came silently, their king and his entourage. He was tall and pale as the moon, clad in rich green lined in gold. The forest brightened around him.
She knelt, speaking in a lilting, whispering language that sounded like wind. Her father moved to mimic her actions, but she bid him stay seated. The king replied in the same windlike language, and she rose, introducing her father.
He bowed his head to the king in deference, then glanced at his daughter. She sank to her knees before him without the grace she’d had before the king.
“Dad,” she began, uncertain. “I made a deal with them.” she waited for him to respond. When he didn’t, she pushed on. “I know you never wanted to feel like a burden. I know you hate being treated like an invalid. But I couldn’t watch you die. You’re right, they wouldn’t heal you for a price I could pay, and you wouldn’t want them to, either. So I made them an offer. It’s pretty simple, really. They make you one of them, and they get to keep you.” She took in a shuddering breath and held it, waiting for his reaction.
“The deal is made?” he asked, his expression hard to read.
“Only if you give yourself willingly.”
“if I say no, will you be punished?”
“No, dad. I’ll be fine.” she assured him.
“They won’t take my memory, will they?” she shook her head. “Where’s the catch?”
Her voice caught in her throat. “The Neighbors are hidden from humanity. They can’t know.”
“But you know.” he noted. “You can still come see me.”
She nodded at the unspoken question. “You’ll be young, and you’ll stay young. They’ll take care of you. I promise.”
“But I’d have to stay with them.”
She sniffed. “You’ll be one of them, dad. You’ll want to stay with them.”
He pulled her into a tight hug, and she fought back her tears. “It took a lot for you to do this,” he said. “And I appreciate it. I’ll go. Just promise you’ll visit.”
She smiled wetly, tears falling freely. “Trust me, you’ll get sick of me before long.”
He let her go. “Never.”
She helped him to stand, and they walked to the king. They knelt before him, and he placed his hands on her father’s shoulders. His ashen skin turned bark-brown, his hair grew long and shadow-black. When he rose, he looked no older than she was. His clothes had been replaced with a linen tunic and trousers, and his feet were bare, rooted in the soil yet still poised to run. One of the king’s attendants draped a deep green cloak over him, and when he turned to look at her she saw he still had the same storm gray eyes, the only thing she could recognize.
Until he smiled at her. She grinned back, still crying. He lifted her above his head, spinning her in a circle as he had done when she was a toddler.
When he set her down, he placed a kiss on her brow, and her skin tingled with uncontrolled magic.
She wiped her face, still smiling up at him. ” see you tomorrow, Dad. They’ll teach you everything you need to know by then.”
She returned home by herself, heart swirling with complex emotions. She cleared the dishes from that day’s meals and made her way to bed, where she found a yellow rose on her windowsill. She smiled.
It was well worth the sacrifice.