The stay-at-home order was designed to minimise chances of the virus spreading through the population. It was a fairly simple idea to grasp, and even easier to execute if you were a non-essential employee, which Jo was. But, the part that no one seemed to understand?
How bored one could be when there was nothing to do.
Jo groaned into the carpet from her spot in front of the sliding balcony door. Her cat, Furbo, was perched between her shoulder blades, chittering at the birds he could see in the tree out behind their apartment building. Furbo had no issues with the government order, as it meant he got scratches and strokes all day long. Jo, on the other hand, had run out of things to do by day four.
It was poor planning on her part, but she wasn’t the sort of person that could just sit around and do household chores until her fingers bled. All the commissions that had needed to be done were done, and were sitting along the wall in her dining room drying, while one sketchbook had been filled with artwork already. Her fingers were itching to be holding a buzzing machine and driving ink into someone’s skin.
But, no, she was a non-essential employee. The entire shop was closed down and her boss had done a deep scrub of everything there, as a precaution. It was a good idea. All of this — the stay-at-home, maintain six feet distance, and don’t-be-stupid — was all good. It protected people like her gran from getting sick. But sweet baby Jesus was she bored.
Furbo chittered and placed a paw on the back of her head.
“Don’t even think about it, fatso,” she mumbled into the carpet.
The cat launched itself into the screen door. Thankfully, the screen didn’t pop off its tracks, and the cat flopped to the ground with a pitiful meow. She pushed herself up onto her elbows and glared at the Persian.
“Everything okay over there?”
The voice came from outside her balcony. Jo grunted and stood up, ignoring the popping in her knees, and slid the screen door open. Furbo trotted past her, pleased, and jumped up on to the railing to watch the birds. The concrete balcony was cold against her bare feet, and she hopped back inside to grab the fuzzy slippers that matched her fuzzy pyjama pants.
On the balcony right next to hers was her new neighbour. Well, not entirely new; he had moved in a few months ago, right before Christmas. Jo occasionally saw him whenever she came out onto the balcony in the early morning hours. He was quiet; just said a simple ‘hi’ and continued smoking his cigarette. She knew his name only because a package of his had been left at her door once. For all she knew he could be a serial killer on the run.
“Yeah, we’re good,” she said to the possible serial killer.
He nodded and lit a cigarette. “You working from home?” he asked.
Jo cocked her head to the side, looking him up and down. He didn’t look like someone who would kill her. A bit on the scrawny side and pale, but there was a mysterious accent.
“No, my shop’s closed down until this is over.”
“Lucky you. I work IT, so they just moved my job to my home office.”
Scrawny. Pale. IT. And more than likely Scottish, judging by the accent. Definitely not a serial killer.
Jo leaned on the railing and flicked Furbo’s back paw. The cat swatted at her before returning to watching the birds. She smiled at her neighbour.
“Yes. Sorry I never say anything. Never seemed to catch you whenever I was up.”
“Good to meet you, Jo.”
Jo’s morning habits evolved, now that she had finally met her neighbour. In the morning she would slip out onto the balcony with a cup of coffee, instead of torturing Furbo by walking around with a blanket around her shoulders while downing an entire coffee pot. Being outside allowed her to talk to Gavin and actually get to know him. Furbo loved getting outside in the morning as well, to watch the birds.
Gavin was a nice distraction, but it wasn’t enough to truly keep her occupied. After her third perusal, a few days later, of the usersub content of Imgur, she fell asleep with Furbo contentedly purring on her chest. When she awoke, a tiny man dressed in brown pants and a green shirt was running a brush through Furbo’s fur.
Not a short man. A tiny man. Barely taller than Furbo when he was lying down.
Jo had to ask herself if she had smoked anything before she had passed out on the couch, but she knew she hadn’t.
“Uh. Tiny man, are you real?”
The tiny man let out a yell and tumbled off her chest. Furbo freaked out and sank his claws into her breast.
“Son of a bitch!”
Jo flung the cat to the other side of the couch and pulled the collar of her shirt out to see if the claws had pierced her skin. They had, but it was only a drop of blood. Nothing to be concerned about. The little tiny man, however, was a concern.
She scrambled off her couch onto the floor, and was greeted by the sight of a dozen or so more little tiny men. There must have been something in her coffee, or maybe the three-day-old ham and swiss that had been in the back of her fridge.
“Uh, I’ve gone insane.”
The little men began whispering to each other. Once they were done, they shoved one of the men forward. He gave her a deep bow and tucked his arms behind his back.
“We would like to thank you for your offering. In exchange, we have taken the liberty of cleaning your dishes, dusting, and brushing your pet.”
“Offering?” she stammered, incredulous.
“Yes,” he said haughtily. “You left a bowl of milk for us. No one in this country follows the old ways, so we were pleased to find an offering.”
Oh yeah, she was officially crazy. Jo poked the tiny man with her index finger and started slightly when it came into contact with a solid being. The man pushed her hand away, then stood stiffly to attention again.
“What the hell are you? Besides a possible food poisoning hallucination.”
The tiny man motioned to the ones behind him, then back to himself. “We are what you humans call ‘Brownies’. I am known as Aodhan.”
The Brownie glared at her with its tiny black eyes. “Ae-OH-dan. Aodhan.”
That was not a name she was going to remember. Furbo crept up beside her on the couch and looked down at the Brownies. He chirped at them and a couple Brownies looked up. Aodhan continued to stare at her.
“We apologise for waking you. For now, we will take our leave. If you wish for our assistance again we will happily accept another offering of milk.”
Aodhan bowed to her, whistled, and then all of them… vanished. A blink and they were gone. Jo waved a hand through the air where they had been. Furbo meowed and dropped on to the carpet, pawing at the ground where the Brownies had stood.
Now, she really needed a drink.
Random pages from her late-night research fluttered in the breeze. She dropped her sketchbook on top of the pages to stop them blowing away, making the cheap metal table wobble. Jo had been up the entire night drawing the Brownies and researching whatever she could find on them. That had landed her in a Wikipedia rabbit hole.
Her head snapped up to see Gavin step out onto his balcony, lighting his morning cigarette.
The man jumped, dropping the cigarette. He cursed and bent down to pick it up. Jo ran over to the concrete barrier that divided their balconies, and mentally measured out the six-foot distance. If hallucinations were part of the illness, she didn’t want to spread it.
“Uh, morning Jo.”
She held up the sketchbook and tapped the image she had drawn of Aodhan. “Do you know anything about these? Brownies? Wait, you’re Scottish right? At least, you sound it,” she blurted.
His eyebrows rose as he looked from her to her table. She probably looked like she hadn’t slept. Which she hadn’t.
Gavin took a drag from the cigarette and moved closer, so he could see the sketchpad. “Brownies are a folk tale. My mum liked to create stories about Brownies and other types of faerie folk.”
Jo tossed her sketchbook behind her and heard an angry yowl from Furbo. “Are they real?”
Her neighbour took a step back from her. It probably wasn’t the best question to ask, on reflection.
“They’re children’s tales,” Gavin said carefully, eyeing her. His eyes darted towards his balcony door and then back to her. “I think you should get some sleep, Jo.” He made as though to head back into his apartment.
By the time he had slipped back inside, Jo realised she was looking like the homeless man down the block for whom she always bought lunch. Jeffrey was a nice man, but definitely needed to go back on his meds. She sighed, and went back inside. Standing at her desk, she gathered all of her paperwork into her arms and dropped it on the floor of her living room. She had to find out if she was crazy.
The simplest way? Leave milk out and see what happened. That’s what scientists did, right? Try to see if their idea was right by doing it. She probably should have paid more attention in science class, she reflected, instead of drawing caricatures of her teacher. Though, her teacher did eventually buy them off her when she graduated.
Jo threw open her fridge and grabbed the half-gallon of milk and an unwashed cereal bowl on the counter. She poured just enough milk into the bowl to probably be considered too much. She put the milk back into the fridge before she could forget about it and leave it on the counter again. She doubted that the grocery store had restocked the milk since she had last been there. Stupid panic shoppers.
She made her way into the bedroom and kicked her slippers into a pile of clothes. The bed looked very tempting; heaps of pillows and blankets that cradled her just right. With a heavy sigh she crawled under the blankets, scooting over to make room for Furbo on the corner of the bed. His spot was covered in white fur. That was something she needed to clean, before she inhaled another hairball. Jo yawned and turned her face into the pillow. The potential choking hazard could wait until she woke up.
Ten hours later, Jo woke up to a spotless apartment and perfectly groomed and contented Furbo. The cat was stretched out on his back, looking like he had been nuzzling catnip for the past few hours. She ran a hand through Furbo’s fur and grinned. It was the softest the cat’s fur had ever been.
Carefully, Jo made her way around the lazy cat and stepped into her living room. It looked like professional cleaners had visited. There wasn’t a speck of dust or cat hair anywhere. It looked like they even shampooed the carpet. How the hell did they manage to do that?
Aodhan cleared his throat beside her and Jo jumped at the sudden noise. She straightened her shirt and tried to calm her racing heart. No reason to get scared just because there were faeries in her house, right?
“Good evening. We have accepted your offering again,” Aodhan said, bowing. “Today we have cleaned the rest of your apartment–”
Jo held up a finger to silence the Brownie, as she looked around her dining room. Well, it wasn’t exactly a dining room any more; she had turned it into a makeshift studio space for her artwork. Aodhan mumbled something she didn’t catch.
The room was clean. Too clean.
“Where’s my artwork?”
“Ah, we have filed it all away. All unfinished pieces or crumpled or obviously unwanted art was thrown in the trash. All materials have been organised and placed in drawers in order of type of material.”
There was a moment, the briefest of them, in which Jo was actually pleased that her studio was clean. Then her brain caught up.
They had thrown away art. Yes, they were unfinished pieces, but that didn’t mean that they were supposed to be thrown away. She turned back to look at the Brownie, standing on top of a bookcase.
“You threw away art?”
“Yes, they were unfinished pieces and had been around for some time, according to their placement in the pile they were in.”
She ran to the trash can in the kitchen, finding only a perfectly clean and empty bag. There were no other trash cans besides the tiny ones in the studio and bathroom, and she doubted that they would be able to hold all those pieces.
“You have got to be shitting me. Get those pieces back!” she yelled.
Aodhan didn’t even flinch. The little man just tucked his arms behind his back and looked right up at her.
“They have been placed in the bin and your garbage collectors have already been by this afternoon.”
“Son of a bitch!” Jo kicked one of Furbo’s catnip balls across the living room. “Why the hell would you fairies touch that stuff?”
The room physically dropped several degrees in temperature. Jo stiffened. That wasn’t her air conditioning kicking on, or a random window being opened to let in the breeze. Her mind flicked back to a nugget of information she had read the previous night.
Brownies are easily offended. Stories tell of how they would wreak havoc before they left the house they were living in; and how, if angered, could turn into boggarts.
Jo didn’t move. She could hear Aodhan walking along the top of the bookcase with carefully measured steps. There was nothing around her that she could use to defend herself; the closest was the gun that she kept in the locked safe in her bedroom closet. Not exactly useful against a target the size of a prescription bottle.
“And here we thought you were a good person to work for,” the Brownie began icily. “We came over to this new land with the lad that lived in our house. It was going to be a new start for us. But it seems that the people here are just as rude as the ones from our homeland.”
Several books came flying off her bookcase towards her and she fell backwards to get out of their way. She scrambled out of the way on her hands and knees, as the bookcase came slamming down where she had been. Aodhan landed on the back of the bookcase, glaring at her.
“It’s a shame,” he hissed. “We did like your pet.”
Jo yelled as a knife from her kitchen flew past her and into the wall by the balcony door.
The rest of the Brownies poured out from behind pieces of furniture, their tiny eyes blazing. Definitely a bad idea to insult a Brownie. She scrambled to her feet and ran towards the hallway. As she reached her bedroom a chair flew past, crashing into the wall. It fell to the ground in pieces. Jo screamed as a Brownie raced along the hall towards her, waving a butcher knife.
She kicked it as hard as she could. It hit the wall with a sickening crack. She grabbed the knife and ducked into her bedroom, slamming the door.
Furbo peeked out from underneath her bed. Jo ignored him, and ripped the blanket off. She ran to the door and stuffed the blanket into the crack. Gripping the knife tightly, she backed away from the door.
This wasn’t how she imagined her evening going. She was thinking of maybe a little light dinner, some fresh air on the balcony with her sketchbook, and then checking to see if she had any new commissions. At no point had she planned on defending her life from a group of rabid Brownies.
“Do you really think this door is going to keep us out?
The door shook as something heavy slammed against it. At that moment, she heard a knock at the balcony door.
“Jo? Everything alright?”
Gavin did not need to be here right now. She heard the glass door sliding open.
“Jo? I heard you— HOLY SHIT!”
Really bad timing. Jo ran back to her door, pulled the blanket away, and yanked it open. A brownie stood there grinning evilly. She kicked it, and was pleased to see it sail through the air to land in the trash can. At least some of her old soccer skills hadn’t disappeared.
Out in her living room Gavin was attempting to fight off several Brownies with a pillow from her couch. Jo grabbed one of her larger art books from the ground and slammed it down on top of one. It made a sickening crunch. She snatched Gavin’s hand and yanked him back towards the bedroom. She pushed him inside and slammed the door. Hastily, she stuffed the blanket back into the crack, and looked around for something she could use as a weapon.
“What the hell is that?” Gavin yelled, pointing at the door.
She reached under the bed in search of something heavy, Furbo meowing irritably. She pulled out an old aluminum bat from high school. It would work for now. She stood up and pointed the end of the bat at Gavin.
“Those are Brownies, that apparently hitched a ride here with you! Now grab something to hit them with!”
Gavin stared at her in confusion. “Brownies? Seriously?”
Jo pressed the end of the bat against his chest. “Did they not just try to kill you?” He nodded. “And you’re questioning it?”
“I really shouldn’t have come over here.”
“No, you shouldn’t have.”
Gavin picked up a book that had sat beside her bed for the past few months and gripped it tightly.
Now they just needed a plan. Furbo yowled, and Jo snapped her attention back to the door. The blanket was being pulled through the crack. She tightened her grip on the bat and brought it up.
“So, Plan A was to hide and wait them out,” she reasoned.
“And Plan B?” asked Gavin, shakily.
The blanket disappeared through the crack and several Brownies appeared in its place. Furbo launched himself at one from under the bed. Jo was going to give that cat so many treats, if she survived this. She raised the bat, then swiftly brought it down on a Brownie that had been running towards her. Gavin dropped his book on one and quickly sat on it.
Right now she wasn’t going to worry about the potential stains in the carpet. She had a feeling she wasn’t going to be getting her deposit back when she moved out.
The Brownie that Furbo had caught gave a high-pitched scream, before dropping to the floor in a bloody pile. Furbo batted at the body for a moment.
“Stop playing with it, ya damn cat!”
Jo ran to the door and gripped the door handle. They wouldn’t be able to hide in the bedroom for much longer. She glanced over her shoulder at Gavin, who was looking at the back of the book, face screwed up in disgust. He tried to delicately scrape the Brownie remains off it. Definitely not someone she would have picked for her apocalypse team, but he would do.
She took a deep breath, and yanked the door open.
A Brownie charged at her, but Furbo launched past her and caught it in his mouth. It screamed as Furbo bit down. Jo swung the bat, crushing another Brownie against the wall, before ducking to the ground as a series of pots and pans flew at where her head had been. The Brownie throwing all her dishes was on the kitchen counter, by her microwave.
Jo rushed over and snatched it up. It began biting at her hand with surprisingly sharp teeth. She hissed as it broke through her skin, jamming the button on the microwave to pop the door open. She tossed the Brownie inside and hit the ‘popcorn’ button. She could clean the microwave later.
“Hah! Got one!” she heard Gavin cry.
She rolled her eyes, grabbing the cast iron skillet that had been sitting on her stove. As she turned around a cheap porcelain plate slammed down on her head. It shattered, sending pieces clattering to the vinyl floor. Jo hissed with pain, clutching her head. Something trickled down the side of her face. She tried to ignore the wetness under her fingers. Wounds could be stitched. She was sure as hell not letting a Brownie get away with that.
The cast iron pan cracked against the offending Brownie with a pleasing thud. It crashed to the ground and didn’t move. She scurried from the kitchen into the dining room to see Furbo catch a Brownie mid air with his claws and begin tearing at it. She ignored the tiny screams and turned towards the living room.
The bat she had dropped earlier swung into her face and she felt her nose crack. She dropped to the ground, putting the back of her hand under her bleeding nose. Her eyes were watering as she looked up. Aodhan stood proudly on a wall shelf, the bat dangling from his small hand. He grinned at her nastily.
“You really should have just thanked us.”
Jo spat, tasting blood, and lunged for Aodhan. He ducked and brought the bat up against her rib cage. She collapsed to her knees and tried to suck in a breath, but couldn’t. Aodhan dropped down on the ground in front of her and pointed up at her with one stubby finger.
“We don’t like being called faer–”
He was cut off by the cast iron pan landing on his head with a wet-sounding smack. Jo turned to see Gavin lift the pan back up and swing it at the last Brownie. It flew across the room and smacked against the glass balcony door. Its little corpse made a sad-sounding squeak as it slid to the ground, a bloody smear in its wake.
Jo grunted and collapsed against the wall, carefully nursing her ribs. Gavin dropped the pan and then raised his arms.
“Yes! We did it!”
“Ya,” Jo replied weakly, coughing. Everything hurt. Gavin crouched next to her and gave her a once-over.
“I think we might need to take you to the emergency room.”
Furbo meowed, licking his bloody chops. Jo really didn’t want to think about how long it would take to get that out of his fur. She made an attempt to push herself up, but pain lanced through her chest.
“And tell them what?” Jo spat. “We were attacked by vicious Brownies because I called them faeries?”
Gavin opened his mouth to say something, and then closed it. For a moment he was silent. Then he gave her a broad grin. “We just say that I, Gavin Ainsley, happened to see my neighbour…” he looked at her expectantly.
He smiled. “That I saw my neighbour getting jumped while coming back from the store with much-needed cat food. We scared them off and then I decided to take you to the emergency room.”
Jo raised an eyebrow at him. “They aren’t going to believe that.”
“We’re in the middle of a pandemic. At the moment I don’t think they’re going to care that much.”
Jo sighed and, with a wince, pointed towards her art desk.
“Bottom drawer should be some masks and nitrile gloves.”
That made her chuckle, and she winced from the pain. “No, tattoo artist.”
“Well, I have a feeling you’re not going to be doing any faeries for a while.”
That was true. New rule in her chair from now on: no fairies. Someone else in the shop could do those.
She grunted as Furbo climbed onto her stomach and began to purr. At least someone had enjoyed the carnage. Perhaps now she would be able to enjoy the stay-at-home order in drug induced bliss.
“I swear to all that is holy that if you brought anything else from Scotland, I ain’t dealing with it,” she hissed at Gavin.
“I’ll make sure to hide Nessie in my tub, then,” he replied wryly, masks and gloves in hand.