The Stranded Kelpie

A short story about a girl named Mels at a festival. She encounters a girl behaving oddly, and has to perform a task in exchange for the return of her phone.


“Hey guys, has anyone seen my phone?” I rummaged around in my pockets, feeling a familiar sense of discomfort rising in my chest as each one turned out empty or returned with nothing but bobby pins and crumpled loyalty cards. I’d worn these cargo pants for the sole purpose of not having to carry a bag for the whole festival, but now I regretted the trade-off. June and Sascha were both rocking lipstick lesbian vibes, looking like movie stars as their heels punctured the grass with each swaying step. The crowd parted and closed graciously around them, and I almost lost them for a moment before they realised I’d lagged behind and swung back around. Sascha dug her fingers into my arm and hauled me after her with all the iron determination of a parent shopping on Christmas Eve. For a moment I thought I spotted something on the ground behind us, but then a couple of guys in red jackets brushed past my shoulder and it was gone.

“Hang on, I think it’s back there,” I told Sascha, but she shook her head.

“I seriously doubt you’ll find it if it was,” she warned. “Stop fussing, Mels! Don’t you have like, three back-ups? They’re all synced to your accounts, right? If we don’t find it at the information tent later, just go back to one of those until you can transfer the number over to a new one again.”

I grimaced and nodded as I tried to tug my tank top into the right place. Sascha halted at the edge of the crowd to help adjust my clothes and smooth a strand of hair from my face.

“I’ll instagram everything,” June offered. “You won’t miss a thing.”

“That’s not why I…”

“Calm your tits already and let’s get moving. We have two whole hours to relax until the Midsumma Festival stage is active again. Let’s not waste it.” Sascha grabbed my hand and continued leading us away from the main lawn.

We only saw one more large group, a congregation of shirtless men carrying a stunning drag queen in a flowing green gown on their shoulders as she elegantly pointed them and their glittery followers in the other direction. “Onwards, my fairies!” she cackled delightedly. June rolled her eyes.

“Show-ponies. At least that queen has a solid sense of colour, though. The entire rainbow is getting kind of overdone,” she complained, but without any real rancour. She brightened up and lengthened her stride a moment later, gesturing for us to keep up. “I think I’ve spotted them! Come on.”

We found Sascha’s friends setting up picnic rugs. They all greeted each other with enthusiastic hugs, a couple of them squealing with excitement and hugging me to make me feel included. Soon people were all kneeling comfortably on the rugs, passing drinks around. I accepted a bottle of cider and sipped at it cautiously, content to remain quiet and sober while I watched the others have fun.

I noticed one of the girls looking me over, and smiled shyly at her. Her returning smile was brief and lacked warmth, so I switched my gaze to find solace in Sascha, who just raised an eyebrow at me.

“What?” I asked defensively.

“I told you the army chick look wouldn’t win you many girls in this group,” she murmured.

“Whatever. I don’t have an agenda for today, I just want to have fun and relax. You’ll regret your choices later when your feet are throbbing with pain,” I retorted. “You know I’m into girls who are less mainstream, anyway.”

“Midsumma is as mainstream gay as you can get,” Sascha reminded me. “I mean, not that there won’t be a lot more opportunity once the bands take the stage tonight. I’m just a little surprised you asked to tag along with me tonight. Don’t you normally prefer book clubs to dancing?”

“I don’t dislike dancing. Sometimes I like a change of pace. A little adventure. ” I waved a hand dismissively. “Don’t worry about trying to entertain or include me. I don’t need a babysitter. I’m just here to soak in the atmosphere, and if I get bored, I’ll head home early.”

“Alright then.” She took a cigarette offered to her and our conversation came to an end.

Once her friends were done with their supply of drinks, someone brought out cards and a pile of fake gambling chips to pass the time. I excused myself to briefly visit the port-a-loo back towards the main stage. By the time I got back, only a few people were still involved in the poker game, and the rest were deep in conversation. I hung back for a little bit, wishing I had my phone to play with. I turned around to check out the other people around this section of the park, and soon noticed a cute punk girl traipsing through the park.

She was short and spiky, all elbows and artfully torn designer clothes hanging off her bones and hair that looked nearly solid with the amount of gel keeping it in its gravity-defying place. The others looked too busy to notice her walking by, and probably hadn’t even noticed my return, so I forced a smile just in case she was paying attention. She didn’t make eye contact, so it wasn’t until she was a metre from me that I realised she’d been making a beeline straight for me already.

“You dropped this earlier,” she accused as my greeting died on my tongue. Her voice was slightly husky, like a smoker’s, or maybe she just had a cold. I looked down. She cradled a phone in her bony hands, the screen cracked and dark.

“Shit!” I slapped my forehead with my palm, gazing at it with regret. “I knew it wasn’t just in my car. How the hell did you figure out who it belonged to?”

“The charm,” she answered, looking down at the tiny plastic panda that dangled off it. “It leads straight to you.”

“Right, of course, you bumped into someone who recognised it from me.” I nodded, embarrassed.

“That’s not what I said.” She shifted her feet, still keeping her face tilted away.

I let the moment drag out, uncertain how to respond to that. A shriek of laughter arose from June in the distance, but didn’t manage to cut through the air between us to relieve the tension. I drew in a breath and stepped towards her, reaching out for my phone. “So anyway, thanks for bringing this back to me…”

She snatched her hands back. “Not so fast! I found it for you. I know it’s important. I need something of equal importance back.”

I squinted at her and snorted derisively. “Uhh, a finder’s fee? That’s a joke, right? You are so out of luck, I don’t have a cent on me.” Her expression remained impassive. “What’s your name, anyway?”

For the first time her eyes rose up to meet mine, and they flashed strangely, a split-second of flat, shining green reflecting out before they settled into a deep brown, shadowed by her frown. “Two wishes for nothing? That’s not even yours to ask for! Listen, I need someone’s help, and you’re the only one here who I can use. I’m sure it’s within your abilities to do, and I promise I’ll give your phone back afterwards.”

“Riight…” I glanced at the others. None of them were paying attention, and it would be awkward to interrupt them just to ask them if this girl seemed as weird to them as I thought she was. Maybe she’s taken a few special substances today. It wouldn’t be out of place… In which case, she could really need the help, and I didn’t want to be responsible for someone’s bad trip. I shrugged and turned back to her reluctantly. “What do you need me to do?”

Her scowl disappeared instantly. “Come with me.” The phone flashed out of sight and she leaned over and grabbed my hand, pulling me along. Her fingers were cold despite the warm air, and gripped mine with surprising strength. I threw one last look over my shoulder at the others and then began trotting after her. Despite my advantage in height, I had to jog quickly to keep up with her, heading deeper into the park, towards the field where some of the rides were set up.

This side of the event grounds there wasn’t a lot of activity; the sun was starting to set and most of the vendors had closed for the day, so most of the other people we passed were there to relax away from the crowds. We veered towards the temporary fence erected around the back of the rides, and followed it along until we reached the road, and she came to a halt.

“In there,” she said, gesturing towards at the outdoor pool centre across the silent road.

“No one’s in there, it’s closed for the day,” I explained cautiously.

“No, come and see. I need you to get him out.” She ran across the road. I followed at a walk and drew up beside her, my eyes following her gaze to the empty pool inside.

“Who? There’s no one there.” Before I could turn away, she gripped my arm tightly, refusing to budge.

“See? Right there!” She pointed at the blow-up seahorse swimming ring someone had left floating in there. “He’s stuck, and I can’t talk to him or get him out! We can’t go through iron.”

I frowned. “It’s a steel chain-link fence. I can’t exactly go through that either.”

“Steel is made out of iron. Idiot.” Her scowl returned. “You can climb over it. I can’t touch the stuff without pain.”

I glanced at the top of the fence, which was edged in barbed wire. “Yeah, I’m not doing that for some blow-up toy. Let’s get you calmed down from your high somewhere else. Do you have any friends nearby?”

“You don’t want to meet my friends.” Her eyes flashed again, and my vision fluttered strangely for a second, making the shadows around her draw closer. Something twinged at the back of my mind, like perhaps this situation wasn’t quite right, or perhaps I wasn’t asking the right questions; but as I focussed on her again, the thought slid away from my grip like sand. I frowned at the tiny punk, but she didn’t seem to be giving way on the matter.

“Fine, I’ll try to get it back for you. Stand back. And call an ambulance if I break a leg, would you? If you run off and leave me to wallow in my pain and regret, I will hunt you down.” She took a step back as I dug my fingers into the fence and began to climb. It was awkward progress, as my toes didn’t comfortably fit in the gaps in the fence–probably a deliberate part of the design to discourage trespassing. I tried to ignore the self-consciousness creeping up on me as I got further up, aware that she was staring at me intently the whole time.“This isn’t all an elaborate excuse to get a good look at my arse, is it?” I called down shakily, pausing as I reached the barbed wire. This was not the best idea in the world. But I am dressed for it.

“You could probably get over the top if you edge over to that side building,” she called up, ignoring my taunt. I looked to my left. It wasn’t that far away, so I started moving over to it. There were a few ridges in the brickwork I could get a bit of grip on. I pulled myself up over the gutter mostly by upper body strength, and by pushing my feet away from the fence, hoping my body would interpret that as upwards momentum instead of failing me at the last second. When I was sure I wasn’t going to slip off the edge and break a leg, I eased myself up into a sitting position slowly, turning around to face her.

“What are you doing?” She exclaimed, waving her arms. “He needs your help now! Don’t delay”

“Ease up, I can hear you!” At least getting down is the easier part. I swung myself over the other side of the shed and slid down the drainpipe, stumbling a little as I landed.

“Alright, now, kelpies are kind of stubborn about getting out of water, but if it’s that nasty stuff you humans use, he needs to get out of there before he gets sick, so just be really firm when you talk to him,” she started explaining through the fence, as I cautiously approached the edge. The floatie was in the middle of the pool, and there weren’t any poles around to tow it out.

“Alright, I’ll have to actually jump in to get close enough to fetch him out,” I told her, and started peeling off my clothes. The evening air was warm, at least, so the clothes I kept on wouldn’t take too long to dry afterwards.

“Wait, no… don’t get in the water with him!” A note of panic entered her voice, and I just waved behind me as I knelt by the edge and dipped my feet in. “Humans can’t resist their glamour! You’ll drown!”

“I’m fine, just stay calm while I get him out of here,” I assured her as I slid down into the water with a small splash. Where I’d entered, the water rose up to chest level. It was pleasantly warm, so I slid in further, lazily swimming over to the floatie. My lips quirked upwards into a grin, and I couldn’t help looking out at her and teasing her, just a little bit. She looked so anxious. “The water’s really nice! It’s a pity you can’t join me in here.”

“No! That’s how they get to you! WATCH OUT!” She started pacing, and I turned away with a guilty grimace, reaching for the seahorse. That seemed to only upset her more, as I heard her yell again, “Get away from him! He’s almost got you!”

“Oh no,” I muttered sardonically, tugging it towards me, when a long, animalistic roar of pain sliced through the air, accompanied by a jarring metallic screeching. I swung around to see the punk girl leaping fully-clothed towards the pool, her eyes blazing green and face twisted in pain and fear.

“I’LL SAVE Y–” I didn’t hear the rest. She crashed into the pool right in front of me, drenching me in a small, chaotic tide smacking upwards from her flailing limbs. I shut my eyes as her fingers clumsily gripped my shoulders and she dragged me towards the edge, water swirling around our feet. Somehow she managed to draw me close to her small, shivering body and haul me up into a bridal carry to set me gently on the ground whilst I still clutched the seahorse floatie to my chest. She climbed out herself and knelt next to me while the disturbances in the water’s surface stopped crashing against the walls of the pool, fading away before the shock of her entrance had really settled in.

“Are you alive?” she whispered nervously.

I took a moment to calmly breathe, listening to the faint sounds of our bodies dripping water onto the concrete, then opened one eye to peek at her. Her eyes were large and brown again as they looked at me with concern. “I’ll admit, I’m not entirely sure about what I just witnessed, so I think my response to that might depend upon your explanation.”

She shook her head and looked away, embarrassed. “Stupid human. I told you not to go in the water. Kelpies are most dangerous there, everyone ought to know that.”

“Not to burst your little bubble, but I don’t think this is much of a… kelpie.” I lifted up the floatie and let her snatch it from me. She began inspecting it with growing confusion, as I raised myself onto my elbows, a position which gave me a good view of the destruction of the fence.

The damaged wire curled back on itself, making the hole she’d ripped into it appear wider, the ends blackened as if by fire. As I looked back and forth dumbly between it and the girl I noticed singe marks across her face and ugly welts on her fingers. That feeling slid back into my brain of sand passing through my fingers, and as the welts began to heal unnaturally fast across her skin, the sensation dropped away. A shiver ran down my spine, reminding me that I was wet and partially naked in front of a total stranger who was clearly no more high than I was. Her skin appeared much more grey than it should be, with swirling bar-like patterns in her skin following the lines of her bone structure, her eyes unnaturally green again and larger than before. On closer inspection, what I had interpreted as the height of designer punk fashion was apparently incredibly fine, black spiderwebs woven and pressed together to form something vaguely resembling human clothing, stretched over her frame like rags.

“You’re not… a normal human,” I stated, and flinched to hear the words come out. Well said.

She snarled and ripped at the swim ring. It came apart like crepe paper in her fingers, the plastic gasping and squeaking ungraciously, and she flung the pieces from her. “I went through all this trouble for a human toy? Great! And here I was thinking I was sticking out for a trapped fae. What a waste of my midsummer revels.”

“You’re a fairy… here for the Midsumma party,” I echoed. No big deal, right? Where else would fairies go but to a party made for fairies of the queerer sort?

She looked back to me and sighed, tilting her head. “Sorry, it’s hard to maintain my glamour when I get injured. Humans don’t always deal with reality shifts and I can’t do the undercover thing well so I just… magic away the awkwardness, you know?”

“Oh, that’s cool. It’s fine. I mean if I could magic away social awkwardness, I totally would.” I sat up and crossed my arms over my stomach. Even looking half-drowned she looked cute, but at least her meticulously-gelled hair was just as ruined as mine, which was starting to frizz like crazy. “I don’t know why you make your eyes look brown instead of green, though. They’re gorgeous.”

“Oh, more people have brown eyes. It looks human, and my shade of green is not.” She shrugged. “And I like them. They’re pretty.”

I smiled. “Glad you think so.”

She smiled back for a moment before looking a little flustered, and started patting her body down. “Hang on. I forgot about your tiny brick.”

“Tiny brick…? Oh.” I took my phone from her hands as she offered it, wincing at the sorry display of water damage it had become. “My phone. It’s probably more effort to save than it’s worth, at this point. I guess I wouldn’t need it anyway, you don’t have a number I could add in, do you?”

“Sorry, I don’t understand those much. Most of my friends are really into it now, but I’m too restless to sit down and figure it out.” She grimaced. “It’s pesky.”

“If you can live without it, you may as well. Not the end of the world.” I stared at it a little longer before tossing it over to my pile of clothes. “We both had fruitless results to this transaction, so at least we’re still kind of even.”

“Hey, I saved your life! You owe me!” she objected, and I shook my head.

“Nuh-uh. It wasn’t a Kelpie and I wasn’t drowning. You just threw yourself into a pool and got yourself all wet,” I pointed out, grinning.

Her face fell. “Hell! I’m going to be drained of magic for the rest of midsummer and I didn’t even get a life debt for it. This is the worst. I’m going to miss out on the one night of the year where I get to openly seduce human ladies, all for nothing.” Her shoulders slumped.

“Hey, there’s still time.” I hesitated, then reached out to gently pat her shoulder. “The main party starts in… what, twenty minutes? There’ll be dancing, everyone will be getting drunk, I’m sure a cute little punk girl like you could have all the girls you wanted.”

She threw up her hands with a disgusted grunt. “I don’t know how human dating works! I know that includes flirting, but I usually skip past that by using glamours to entrance people instead. I’ve never…”

“Sat down and figured it out? It’s something you practice on other people, you know. You can’t just be good at it without trying to interact with others,” I smiled at her. “I’m really not the party type, but I think I have enough skills to get by in the world. It’s not an impossible skill to learn.”

“Really? How do you do it?” She looked up at me through her lashes curiously. Cool light and gentle shadows danced across her face, bouncing off from the water below.

This is as good an opening as ever. I bit my lip, considering, and moved towards her, not removing my hand. “Well, inviting someone into your personal space with your body language is a good way to start. That’s easy when you’re dancing. If they’re interested, the other person will usually notice and take your cues to get closer…”

Suddenly, she sat up and grabbed my shoulders and pushed her face close to mine, wearing a frown of concentration. “Would you like to dance with me?” she asked a little too loudly. I jerked back, surprised, and laughed at her abruptness. She let go of me and sighed. “See? I’m terrible. You’re laughing at me.”

“You’re fine! I’m sorry. I was trying to be subtle, and wasn’t expecting that. I shouldn’t have laughed.”

“No, I’ve ruined it. I’m never going to seduce you.” She looked away.

“I didn’t know you wanted to seduce me. But I’m glad.” I smiled and reached out to touch her cheek. She turned back, her eyes searching my face while a blush crept over her cheeks, and I leaned in to press my mouth to hers. Her eyes fluttered closed and she responded enthusiastically, her tongue teasing my lips, my nose filling with the scents of wet earth and apples and the slight hint of chlorine. Her fingers trailed up my side and I shivered before reluctantly breaking the kiss, hyper-aware of my lack of clothing.

“Oh. That was okay?” She asked, still blushing. “I wasn’t bad?”

I smiled. “Absolutely fine. I’m just a little less clothed than I usually like being for a first kiss. Hang on.” I stood and walked away from her, leaning down to pick up my clothes and start putting them back on, ignoring the mild discomfort of them sticking on my cold skin. “I don’t know exactly what your mystical endgame is, but like I said, I’m not much of a party girl. If you’re after one-night-stands so you can magically disappear afterwards, I know a bunch of other people you’d be more interested in…”

“I’m interested in you,” she insisted, rising to her feet to follow after me. Once I was done, she took my hand with a stern expression, as if trying to wipe away her shy embarrassment by resuming her previous commanding punk demeanor. “I can stick around past midsummer. Only the nobles get to bring their human lovers back home, anyway, so don’t worry, I won’t whisk you away for a thousand years. Usually I’ll stick around in mortal places until things stop being fun, then I just glamour them to forget I’m there while I sleep on their couch and wait for the portal to open back up again.”

“Riiight. That’s a little weird.” I paused as I considered that. “This may… take some getting used to.”

“That’s okay. I’m sorry again about your phone. Your charm clearly denoted some importance to it as an object of yours.”

“All my contacts were synced to the cloud, so I’ll cope.” I smiled wryly at her blank expression, and tugged her along, back out of the pool property grounds and towards the festival. She slowed down as we approached the steel fence so I reached above her to hold the wire up, allowing her to walk through with ease. “I can teach you how to use them, if you like. Maybe you can tell me more about how your friends use technology, too. I’d love to hear what kind of websites fairies use.”

“It depends. My friend the Doe-Girl was a big fan of something with pictures of imaginary pets the last time I asked. Newpets, I think. It sounded complicated so I stopped asking.” She grimaced.

“Right. Doe-Girl was her name?”

“No, just what we call her. Real names are kind of secret because they give you power.”

“Oh, so I guess that’s why you didn’t give me yours.”

She nodded. “Yeah. But you can call me Moss-Face if you like.”

I stifled a snort of laughter. “How about just Moss?”

“That’ll do. What’s your name?” she smiled toothily, and I narrowed my eyes at her.

“I won’t be caught that easily! But you can call me Mels, I think.” I took a mental note to make sure she couldn’t find my bank cards later on. “Come on. I want to take you up on that offer of a dance.”

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