I wait at the fence with the other kids, bare toes in the dry dirt. Someone spots Liana’s lavender wings in the distance and squeals. Fairies technically aren’t allowed to visit the camp, but Liana comes once every few days to bring us her other-world candy. She paints beautiful places onto the scraps of paper wrapped around her hard-sugar sweets — cities and wilderness, beaches and mountains. Her worlds only last as long as it takes for the candy to melt in our mouths, but we welcome the escape.
Liana lands at the gate and bribes a crimson-winged guard with a piece of candy. I run to the central square with the other kids, and we all line up. We don’t push our way forward or fight for a better spot. Any sign of disorder and the guards would kick Liana out. Sometimes a few adults stand at the end of the line, but they don’t ask for candy unless they really need it.
Liana makes her way down the line, placing one piece of candy into each eagerly outstretched hand. We thank her and hurry back to our tents, clutching our treats in tight fists.
I share my tent with Mama. We aren’t related, of course — everyone here is a stolen human, traded into fairyland so a changeling could have a better life — but Mama took me in when I was a baby and raised me as best she could. She smiles when I open the tent flap. “Looks like you got one.”
I grin. “Liana had enough for everyone today.”
My candy wrapper is painted with an old-growth forest. Ferns and moss cover the ground beneath the towering redwoods. I pop the candy into my mouth and leap into the other-world. The trees here are so big that I can’t reach my arms even halfway around them, and there are rabbits in the undergrowth and birds signing from the branches. I balance across a moss-covered log and hunt for mushrooms in the undergrowth.
The sweetness in my mouth fades, and I’m back in the tent.
Mama examines the now-blank wrapper. “Was it a good one?”
“It was amazing! An old-growth forest with giant trees and all kinds of animals.”
Mama nods. “Good. Liana’s worlds are beautiful, even if they’re only temporary. Gone far too fast, like childhood.”
The next time Liana comes, all the adults line up, even Mama. I’ve never seen her take a candy before, and it makes me uneasy. Whatever’s going on, Liana knew it was coming. She has more candy than I’ve ever seen her bring — she gets through all the kids and most of the adults — but eventually she runs out. Mama doesn’t get a candy. We walk back to our tent together.
I hesitate, then hold my candy out to her. “Here, you take it.”
“No, you should have it.” She takes my hands in hers. “I’m going home. Eat the candy after I’m gone.”
Fairy changelings don’t live as long as humans, and Mama has been pointing out for a while now how big I’ve gotten. I knew that someday the adults would go, but I didn’t think it would be so soon. I can’t bear the thought of Mama leaving. “Can’t you stay?”
It’s a horrid thing to say because she’s been trapped in this camp for her entire life, and she finally gets to be free. But she gives me a fierce hug and whispers, “Except for Liana’s temporary worlds, I’ve never lived anywhere but here. I don’t know what I’ll do when I’m out.”
While she’s holding me, I slip my candy into her pocket. She cries when she notices but doesn’t try to give the candy back. We spend the day doing our chores side-by-side, following the routine as though nothing had changed.
At sunset a pair of guards come for her, their wings tinged orange by the dwindling light. I walk with her to the edge of the square. The other kids are there, too, saying goodbye to the only parents they’ve ever known.
“Eat the candy,” I tell Mama, “I’ll be okay.”
“I love you.” She follows the guards into the square, where all the adults have gathered. Mama puts the candy in her mouth. I hope the wrapper is a good one, someplace that will give her comfort on her journey home.
One blink she’s standing in the square, the next she is gone. The entire square is completely empty, as if our fairyland parents had never existed at all. There were still guards at the periphery of the camp, but the ones in the square had vanished, escorting the adults back to the lives they’d been stolen from.
We wait at the edge of the square. A few of the kids have candies, and they visit Liana’s worlds while the last light fades from the sky and the moon rises. At midnight, the guards return, not with our parents, but not alone, either.
Where the adults once stood there are dozens of babies and toddlers — the next generation of displaced humans. I’m not ready, but I step forward into the crowd of frightened little ones. I pick up an infant, swaddled tightly in a lavender blanket. She’s too little for it now, but when she’s old enough, I’ll give up my other-world candies to make sure there are enough for her.