Kai growled and threw his guitar pick as hard as he could. Then he sighed. It was his last one.
Using considerably more care than he’d shown to the pick, he set his guitar gently in its case, taking a moment to polish the gleaming wood with his shirt sleeve. It had been a gift from his grandmother, and it was hard to believe it was actually his. Although if he didn’t figure out a way to get his fingers to form the chords fast enough to play at some kind of speed, the only beautiful thing would be the guitar. Right now, his playing sucked so hard, nobody would even call it music.
He crawled forward on the grass, his eyes darting from side to side. Practicing in the nearby grove of trees had seemed like a good idea. He’d been sure the cloud-studded sky, grass, and stately oaks would somehow get him in the right mood and make it easier to play. But now he’d lost his last pick, and it was a mottled brown, just the right color to blend in with the ground. A week ago, he’d had five of them. The little things were incredibly easy to lose.
When a quick pass in the general direction of his toss yielded no results, he tried again, inching forward as he parted the grass with throbbing fingers. Everyone told him he’d eventually get calluses at the tips, but for now, he played until he had to stop from the pain—if the frustration didn’t get to him first.
After about twenty minutes of fruitless searching, he growled again and hurled a rock at a nearby oak. A faint cry brought an unexpected surge of guilt.
He jumped up and ran forward, calling himself an idiot over and over. What if he’d hurt someone?
When he reached the base of the oak, a sturdy one that forked about a foot up from the base, he found his rock nestled in the crack, padded by a small pile of bark and moss. Puzzled, he shifted the rock and found part of what looked like a tiny cabin. In the section that had escaped devastation, the wood had been cleverly cut and pieced together so seamlessly, it appeared to have grown that way.
“Hey,” he said, clapping his hand against a sudden pain in his forearm. Had he been bitten by a snake on top of everything else?
What he saw caused him to rub his eyes and look again. No snake or mutant bug had attacked him, but instead a tiny…person scowled at him and brandished a long thorn. It stood only a few inches tall, and if he had to give it a name, he’d call it a pixie, but it didn’t look anything like Tinkerbell. A stern face peered up from a body that seamlessly blended with the leafy covering that served as its clothing. The creature was shouting something at him, but when he leaned forward to hear better, all he got for his trouble was a fierce yank on his sandy blond hair.
“What the hell?!” Kai fought down an urge to smash the other side of the creature’s house. After taking several deep breaths, he said, “Look, I’m sorry. I didn’t even know your home was there. I was just trying to play my guitar, and I got, uh, mad.”
He might not be able to find words in the creature’s high-pitched voice, but it evidently had no trouble understanding him. It brandished its makeshift sword again before glaring up at Kai, obviously unimpressed.
Kai couldn’t blame the tiny thing, although he was still trying to wrap his mind around the fact that it actually existed. He tried to look at the incident the way the angry little person would.
“Okay,” he tried again. “I get it. Words won’t fix your broken house. But what if I built you another one? Would that make everything okay again?”
The little creature lowered its sword and took a step back. Then it folded its arms. It didn’t look angry now, just determined. Kai got the distinct impression that he was under probation.
“All right, then,” he said. “I better get started.”
Kai figured it’d take him a day, tops. His mom had a box of craft sticks out in the garage. They’d used them to glue together little rafts to float his Lego men across the local pond when he was younger.
But after a couple of hours piecing together sticks, his newly made resolution to quit throwing things was severely tested. He’d basically wired together four rafts and stuck a roof on top. It might have been good enough when he was eight, but it looked crude next the piece of craftsmanship he’d busted. The rounded edges of the sticks made it cartoonish, a caricature of a house rather than the thing itself.
So he rummaged around in the garage, finding a razor knife and file among his dad’s tools. He did a bunch of research, everything from bushcraft to people building cabins out of pallets. He tried to note the touches that made a house look inviting as opposed to thrown together. He also cut windows, round ones out of the bottoms of plastic drink bottles, since not having them was one of the things he’d disliked about his earlier attempt.
The round windows led to a hobbit-y looking design, although he kept the door arched, rather than circular—this project was already hard enough. He cut the rounded tops off the craft sticks and formed walls with openings for the windows and door. He insulated the inside with moss. Then he had to build inner walls, and getting those to fit properly (the inside was smaller than the outside) caused him many tiny cuts on his fingers, which already throbbed from practicing.
The project kept growing, as each new detail required more research, and often, failed first attempts. But the desire to get this right took over, and Kai felt fierce satisfaction with every completed step. He struggled for a while with the roof, but he finally smeared caulk all over the tiny boards and glued moss on top. He stained and painted the inside, wishing he’d thought to do that before putting the thing together, since he had to use a mirror and flashlight to see into a couple of the corners on the ceiling. He hung a picture on the back wall, a tree he cut from a magazine, with a frame meticulously constructed of slivered craft sticks. He even gave it a carpet, originally a computer mouse pad, with a blue and gold pattern like a Persian rug. He made a tiny bed for the side, and then he had to watch videos on how to hem scraps of his mom’s quilting fabric to make blankets for it.
He ruefully held up his fingers that were now stinging from all the times he’d poked them with a sewing needle and wondered if he’d ever have hands that weren’t sore again.
All together it took three weeks of steady going, complicated by the fact that he had to hide the project because he had no idea how he’d deal with questions about it. But it had somehow turned into a personal quest. If he couldn’t manage to become a decent guitar player, at least he could do this.
“This came out nice,” he said finally, holding it up to admire it.
He’d originally planned on taking it to the little creature right away, but now he wasn’t sure. He liked his little hobbit house, and he wanted to keep it. If he did, at least he’d have something to show for his summer. His grandma had assured him that “Yellow Submarine” was easy to play as they’d listened to her old Beatles CDs together. He’d recklessly promised her he’d master it before summer was over, and even though he was finally getting calluses on his fingertips, he still couldn’t play it all the way through without messing up.
“After all, I never promised the fairy anything,” he said aloud, and he set the little house on his dresser and went to dinner. It wouldn’t matter if anyone saw it now.
But in the morning when he woke, after he gazed at the little house initially with satisfaction, it gradually turned to unease. His attempts to justify holding onto it seemed as childish as his first hasty try at making it. If he kept it now, he couldn’t be proud of it.
“All right,” he grumbled, heading outside with it before he could change his mind again. He also caught up his guitar case on the way out—maybe another practice session would finally yield some results. When he reached the fairy’s oak, he couldn’t see the tiny creature anywhere, but the silence felt expectant. It was easy to picture the pixie lurking just out of sight.
“So, I, uh, made you a new place,” he said awkwardly. “I don’t know if you’ll like it as much as your last one, but it’s the best I could do.” Then he set the new house next to the remains of the old one, which had been tidied up and mended.
It would have been nice to get some thanks, or even a smile, but the silence still held. Kai walked off about thirty feet, in case his presence made the thing nervous (even though that certainly hadn’t been the case last time). And nothing happened.
Shrugging, he sat down on the grass and opened his guitar case. “Maybe this time it will work,” he murmured as he tuned his guitar. Then he started with the opening G chord of “Yellow Submarine.”
He made it all the way through the first verse, grinning wildly, but then he fumbled the second line of the refrain. He ground his teeth and took a deep breath, ready to try again. He couldn’t suck forever. Yeah, right. Keep telling yourself that, Kai.
As he lifted his pick, a swirl of tiny lights surrounded him, alluring and hypnotic as they pulsed to the rhythm he’d been playing. Almost of their own accord, his fingers placed themselves on the frets, and his right hand began strumming.
A feeling he’d searched for in vain enveloped him, as if the music was flowing through him and out again. As he finished the song, the sparkles faded, but undeterred, he played it again.
It came out perfect this time, too.
He let out a loud whoop, but then he restrained himself and murmured, “Thanks. You have no idea how much this means to me.”
Then the little creature appeared again in front of him. It swept a knobby little hat from its head, bowed, and winked out of sight.