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Midsummer Night's Unemployment
"Man, Obie is gonna be pissed." The hitchhiker shook his head ruefully. "I'm really glad you stopped, mister. I'd never have made it back here in time."
Roy could see a faint reddish glow already creeping over the horizon. "Guess you really tied one on last night, huh?" He still couldn't figure out quite why he had stopped when he saw the kid stumbling along the side of the road. Or why he had gone so far out of his way to drive the guy where he needed to go. They were a good ten miles outside the city, bouncing down a dirt road in the middle of a forest.
Nodding, the young man rubbed his temples. " Been a few years since we popped up near a good bar. Guess I'm outa practice." He squinted through the windshield. "Pretty much anywhere along here is fine."
Roy slowed down, looked for a driveway or mailbox. "You sure this is where you wanna get dropped off? Looks like the middle of nowhere to me."
"This is the place, mister. Thanks." The hitchhiker suddenly sounded an awful lot younger. Roy gave him a curious glance, and almost wrecked the car as he slammed on brakes.
"What the Hell?" Roy looked around the car frantically, and then stared back at the scruffy-looking, nearly naked child sitting next to him. "Where's the guy I picked up? And how did you get in my car?" He twisted around to check behind the seat. Nothing.
"You mean me?" An adult again, his passenger grinned broadly and opened the door to get out.
Roy blinked, feeling a bit lightheaded. "Wait a minute! What... I mean, how did you do that?"
"Oh, the same way I do this." He snapped his fingers, creating a blinding flash of bright purplish light.
When Roy's eyes cleared, the hitchhiker was striding off into the trees. The young man stopped and looked back at him with a smirk. "You might want to follow me. Unless you like looking like that?"
Looking like what? Confused, Roy glanced down and gaped. A good 20 years had been stripped from his body, and his clothing had been replaced by a crude loincloth of woven leaves and vines. The face reflected back from the rear- view mirror belonged to a scruffy, wild-haired little boy with pointed ears. Pointed ears? "Wait!" He scrambled out of the car and ran after the hitchhiker. "You can't leave me like this!"
Child's laughter echoed around him, strangely threatening. Roy pushed through the low-lying brush, heading for a sparkling light directly ahead. As he got closer, he started to slow down. What the Hell was he doing? Chasing after some strange guy with magic powers? His initial astonishment and confusion was rapidly being replaced by growing fear. What was so bad about being a kid? The source of the light was a clearing just ahead, and he stopped short. He could even get used to the ears.
"So nice of you to join us, Robin." A new voice, cold and very, very angry.
Roy started to back away, only to be grabbed by powerful, invisible hands and tossed in a heap in the center of the clearing. He scrambled up, eyes wide as he stared at the strange creatures surrounding him Humanoid, animal, and strange, twisted combinations of both. The invisible fingers spun him around again, turning him to face a lean, dark figure with malevolent, glowing, red eyes.
"Daylight approaches, traitorous dog! You forsake your duties on this, the one night of the year when I need you most?" The dark man scowled even deeper. "Oberon called, but his chosen one preferred the company of mortals to the King of Faerie. Suffer the consequences of your actions!" He raised one hand high in the air, and a blazing ball of fire formed around it.
Roy screamed as the flaming sphere shot towards him, throwing his arms up instinctively. It struck him dead center, and passed harmlessly through his body with a whoosh. Startled, he spun around to see the fireball circle, and then plunge down just beyond the edge of the clearing.
An unearthly scream filled the air, and a burning figure stumbled into the clearing moments later. It was the hitchhiker, clearly visible inside the raging fire. The young man shrank down to become a twin to Roy's child form, as if the flames were burning away years instead of flesh.
"You would try your tricks on me, Robin Goodfellow?" The dark man smiled, but there was no humor in the expression. "Or perhaps you thought I would become careless because of the approaching dawn You have tried my patience for centuries. This time you went too far." He raised a black eyebrow. "What is the mortal expression? Oh, yes. You're fired!" The former hitchhiker's eyes widened in horror as the flames around him turned white hot, and both boy and fireball vanished with a loud pop.
Roy stood trembling before Oberon, too terrified to move. The strange creatures around him began to press closer, forming a tight circle around them. The dark man looked back down at Roy and lay a slender, pale hand on his head. "Robin gave you a suitable form. I give you the power to go with it."
"But..." Roy stiffened as something like a powerful electrical shock burned through his body. For a moment, he thought that he was joining the original Robin as a pile of ash. Oberon's voice sounded in his head. "A year from tonight I will call, and you will come. Until then, fare thee well, Puck!" And then the King of the Faerie vanished.
Blinking, Roy stared around the clearing. All of the strange creatures had vanished. He was alone in the woods, with only the sounds of frogs and crickets around him. And he was his grown-up self again, wearing the work clothes he'd put on this morning. Still dazed, he stumbled back to his car. The engine was running and the lights were on.
Climbing in the open passenger door, he slid over behind the wheel and sat there for a moment. This would make a great story for a psychiatrist somewhere. One of these days, he might even tell it to one. Automatically straightening the mirror, he froze as he caught his own reflection. His hair had lengthened somehow, not a lot, but enough to just cover the tips of his pointed ears.
Midsummer Night's Unemployment copyright 1998 by Bob Stein.
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