It was supposed to have been a simple dare. Climb the fence. Go past the merry-go-round and the haunted castle. Take a right at the mini-train station, then a left at the empty concession stands. Find the fountain in the middle of the park. Take a selfie as proof. Climb back out again.
But it was darker out here than Mandy had expected. Most of the security lights were busted, and the batteries in her Harry Potter flashlight died before she even got to the merry-go-round. The light from her phone was a joke, barely reaching the ground at her feet.
Mandy shoved the flashlight into her front jacket pocket. She wasn’t going to wimp out now, not with everyone waiting for her outside the gate. The FPS, they called themselves. Darrin and Kay and Mika and Carlos. And Emma. Especially Emma, who apparently still thought of Mandy as the geeky kid who lived across the street.
Pops would be furious if he found out that she had ditched her homework and snuck out, and even more furious if he found out that she was trespassing, but …. Mandy straightened her shoulders. Time to show Emma that I’m not a kid anymore.
The moon was just shy of whatever halfway full was. Waxing something? Whatever.
She skirted past the merry-go-round, the figures frozen in place, their eyes wide. The dim light from her phone flashed across a mirror somewhere inside the ride, casting weird, fluctuating shadows across the horses and lions and the things with the eagle heads. Chimeras? Chameleons?
The right word came to her suddenly.
Mandy shivered, pulling her jacket up higher around her neck. She skipped past the haunted castle as fast as she could, not looking at it, not caring about the dead branches and leaves and other things that crunched under her feet. At least she didn’t trip on anything and fall flat on her face.
The mini-train station appeared on her right, the sign hanging down at an angle, grass grown high around the tracks. She turned at the corner, then stumbled to a halt at the sound of scampering and skittering behind her. She whirled around, phone held high.
Eyes blinked at her. A hissy snarl. Whitish-grey fur. The possum stared at her, then waddled away.
Heaving a sigh of relief, she continued down the empty street, eventually coming to the concession stands. They had been set up in a rough square, picnic tables and benches between them to create a courtyard of sorts. Faded signs offered hot dogs, pizza, burgers, ice cream, sno-cones, and more that she couldn’t make out, the words lost to time and rain and wind.
She walked faster, turning left, making her way down the street. Past the ballon game, past the duck game, past the skee ball and the ring toss, to the center of the park.
Finally. The fountain.
It was not large. Maybe as wide around as a good-sized hot tub. The outer rim barely reached her knees. The spray had been turned off a long time ago, leaving a slick sludge of green water in the basin. The female statue in the middle was grimy, and the remains of a nest poked out of the vase she held in her hands.
“Okay, here we go,” Mandy breathed. She backed up to the edge of the fountain, holding her phone up high. She watched herself on the screen, centering the image so that both she and the statue could be seen.
The statue moved.
Mandy shrieked, lost her balance, tumbled backwards. She landed hard on the rim of the fountain. Flailing wildly, she caught at the stone with one hand. Slimy algae stuff, slick under her fingers. She dropped her phone, grabbing with both hands, hauling herself back onto her feet. She turned and back-pedaled rapidly, breathing heavily. Eyes fixed on the statue, she backed up another dozen steps.
The statue straightened, resting the vase against its — her? — hip.
“Do you wish for your phone to be returned?”
The statue’s voice was crystalline, like ringing water and quartz and light shining through rain clouds. Like —
“Hey, wait, what?” Mandy shook her head, eyes squeezed shut. She opened them again. The statue was still studying her, but had moved again, the vase in the other hand now. “I — what — you’re a statue. How do you even know what a phone is? And, wait, why are you even talking?”
“I am of water and the earth and the heavens, not of this form. And I know of phones as I have observed mortals making use of them for many years. Your phone is mine now. Do you wish it to be returned?”
“Well — yeah I want it back. Wait, this is a prank, right?”
The statue almost smiled. “No.”
“… Uh.” Mandy pursed her lips and skipped forward a step. Then another. She made a wide circuit around the fountain, looking for wires and plugs and whatever else would give away that it was animatronic or a robot or just someone in a costume.
But no. Nothing.
Not possible. This has to be a prank. It can’t be real.
She moved a few steps closer, peering up at the statue. “What are you?”
“I have told you: I am of water and the earth and the heavens. Were you not listening?”
“Well — ”
“If you wish your property to be returned, then you must do me a favor.”
Mandy scowled. “Excuse me?”
“An equal trade. A kindness for a kindness. A favor for a favor.”
“Ooo-kay.” Mandy tugged at the bottom of her jacket. “Still think this is a prank, but what did you have in mind?”
“I am of water, and there is little to be had.” The statue lifted a palm towards the sky. “My sisters replenish me as they can, but it is not enough. I requirement nourishment.”
“So, you want me to bring you some …?”
Mandy cleared her throat. “Well, I guess I could — ” Crap. The only safe way out of the park was back over the gate. Where everyone was waiting. Where Emma was waiting. With no phone, no proof, they would think that she had chickened out.
Unless they were all in on the prank.
Unless this was not a prank, unless it was real, and if she tried to tell them the freaking statue had come to life, and she didn’t have any proof of that, either ….
Mandy flushed and scowled, shifting on her feet. “Listen, why don’t you just give me back my phone and I promise that … uh. Hey. Wait a second.” She turned on the ball of her foot, looking back down the street, past the ring toss and the skee ball. “The concession stands. They had cold stuff there. Like, you know, ice cream and sno-cones and pop and other stuff. Maybe there’s some water left; melted ice or whatever.”
The statue tilted her head, studying Mandy silently.
“Okay, just … just don’t do anything to my phone. I will be right back. Promise.”
She bolted down the street, legs pumping. She skidded and made a sharp turn when she reached the food court, running passed the first few concession stands until she reached one that said Ice Cream. The sign displayed a scoop of what was supposed to be vanilla (maybe?) atop a crunchy waffle cone.
Mandy peered over the counter.
The interior was completely dark.
Right. No phone, no flashlight.
Grumbling in frustration, she made her way down the line, from one stand to the next, all the way down to the end. It was too dark to see anything and no way was she going to climb inside without being able to see what she might be stepping on. Or in.
She wiped her hands on her jeans, remembering the feel of the slimy stone under her fingers.
No wonder whatever-she-was wanted fresh water. She’d probably been living in that sludge since the park closed. If I was a fountain and used to having fresh water all the time, I’d want some new water, too.
Assuming this was real, of course.
Mandy stopped, holding her breath.
She took a step, waited, listened, took another.
There, in the small space between the hut for chicken wings and one for fried pickles (yuck). A spigot stuck out of the side of the chicken wings stand, a slow dribble of water staining the hard-packed earth. A few hardy weeds had taken advantage of the water supply, cracking the ground.
Mandy leaned in, wrapping her hands around the small metal wheel. It squeaked and shrieked, finally, slowly beginning to turn. The pipe rattled. With a loud groan, water gushed out of the spigot, brown at first and filled with crud. It gradually cleared and Mandy let out a woot.
Now, how to get ….
Glancing around, she spied a door with most of the word Maintenance still visible. The padlock came off with a few strikes of a heavy rock. Inside, she found one of those yellow mop buckets, complete with wobbly wheels. Rolling it over to the spigot, she jammed it under the rushing water. When it was full, she grabbed the handle and half-pulled, half-pushed it through the food court, around the corner, and back up the street towards the fountain and the waiting … whatever she was.
Water sloshed over the edges of the bucket, soaking Mandy’s shoes.
No one had jumped out yet and yelled “Surprise!” or “Psych!” or “You should see the look on your face!”
The statue moved again as Mandy approached, kneeling, her movements fluid and graceful.
Mandy swallowed, goosebumps pebbling her arms and back.
Okay, maybe this was real. Maybe this was really happening.
When she reached the fountain, she jammed the bucket right up against the rim, using the stone to leverage the bucket up and up and up. The water spilled out, mixing with the green sludge. Bubbles of stink rose and burst. Mandy turned her head and nearly gagged.
The statue sighed, a sound like clear water tumbling over rocks.
“More,” she said.
Mandy made another trip to the spigot in the side of the chicken wings hut, and then another and another. By her fourth trip, the water was a thin trickle. The bucket was barely full when the water slowed to a dribble and then finally stopped.
“Hope that’s enough,” Mandy muttered.
She found the statue still kneeling, fingers moving lazily through the water. The fountain was about half-full now, the green slightly paler, the sludge not as thick. She tipped the bucket one last time, raising the water level just a bit more.
“Okay, that’s the last of oh wow.”
Water beaded on the surface of the statue, glistening. As Mandy watched, the beads rolled down the stone, more and more of them, into the pool. The statue paled, turning a bright marble white. Dried out. The water level rose higher and higher, lapping at the rim.
The surface of the pool rippled, the water rolling, almost … happy?
And then it parted, revealing her phone. It lay at the bottom, completely dry.
“Yes!” Mandy snatched it up, pressing it to her chest.
The water rippled again, a head and torso and arms rising out of the water. But made of water. Water spirit. Sprite? Was that the word?
No. The right word came to her suddenly. Nymph.
The nymph smiled and leaned towards Mandy. A cool touch of lips against lips. Something slipped into her mouth. She rolled it around on her tongue. A single bead of water, crisp and cold. She tucked it into the corner of her cheek.
“They are waiting for you,” the nymph whispered.
And then she dropped away, returning to the water of her fountain.
Mandy stood there for a long time, tasting that bead of water. It never shrank or faded, never lost that taste of purity. She looked at the statue, intact despite how the park around it had fallen apart. She looked up at the moon — waxing quarter, that was it — and then down at the phone in her hand. She clicked it on and pulled up the photos.
There was the picture: the statue looking directly at the camera, lips curved into a faint smile. And Mandy, eyes wide in shock, mouth open, already beginning to fall backwards.
She tucked the phone back into her pocket and made her slow way back towards the gate. The possum skittered across the road in front of her. By the time she reached the rusted metal with its big padlock, she had it figured out. Mostly.
They all waited silently as she climbed back over, Darrin and Kay and Mika and Carlos. And Emma, her face a little flushed, biting her lip that way she did when she was nervous or anxious.
Mandy landed easily on the far side, looked at them each individually, and finally focused on Emma.
She opened her mouth, balancing the bead of water on the tip of her tongue.
Emma bounced on her toes and clapped her hands, while Carlos just grinned and nodded. And then they all opened their mouths, revealing identical beads.
Emma elbowed Kay in the ribs. “See. Told you she could do it.”
A smile of welcome creasing his face, Carlos held out his hand. “Welcome to the Fountain Protection Society, Mandy. Glad to have you.”
They all shook her hand, slapped her on the shoulder, rubbed her head. All except Emma, who sidled over and gently bumped her shoulder. As the group slowly moved away from the park and down the street, Mandy looked up at her and asked, “Why me?”
Another soft shoulder bump. “I see you. How serious and responsible you are, but also … open to possibilities.” Her eyes dropped to the Harry Potter flashlight still poking out of Mandy’s pocket. “We need someone like you. She needs someone like you.”
“What’s her name? How did you meet her? How long has she been there? When can we go back?” The questions came forth in a flood, faster and faster.
Emma laughed and took her hand, curling their fingers together. Kay and Darrin looked back at them, joining in her laughter; but it was kind, not cruel, a welcoming sound.
“All in due time, my geeky little nympholept.”
Mandy frowned. Another new word. “Nympholept?”
“Mmm. You’ll learn more as we go along, but, for now, just know that we protect the nymph. Make sure that she gets enough water, that no one tries to vandalize her shrine — her fountain — and that her existence is kept secret from those who might harm her.”
“So this was a test. She didn’t really need water.”
“Actually, she did. If you hadn’t helped her, we would have gone in after you. Like we do every week. So, keep your Monday nights free, okay?” Another smile and another shoulder bump.
Mandy nodded, suddenly breathless at the realization at she was talking to Emma and smiling with Emma and holding hands with Emma and she had met a real life nymph, for crying out loud!
“Okay,” was all she could say as they walked away together into the night.
[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. A complete list of her published poetry and fiction can be found there.]