Connor fell to his knees on the forest floor. His heart beat as if attempting to escape the confines of his chest.
Anticipating the worst, he slowly turned around. When he saw that nothing was chasing him, Connor resumed breathing. But he knew this reprieve wouldn’t be for long.
The scent of pine filled the air, but it offered no comfort. Green leaves had begun their autumn journey to red, gold, yellow, orange, red, and purple. Conner thought he’d be long dead before the leaves fluttered to the ground.
He fished through his pockets and extracted a Snickers bar and a half-empty tube of Mentos. “I’m not going to last long on these.” He sighed into the void. Connor scanned the surrounding forest, aware that the woods were a cornucopia of food, from berries and mushrooms to roots and rabbits. But he didn’t know the difference between an edible and deadly mushroom and doubted he could catch a rabbit. It didn’t matter anyway. They’ll find me soon.
Quavering shivers shook his body.
A faint rustling startled Connor. A fox? Squirrel? The sound was too soft to be one of the monsters, but it could be that the blood thrumming through his eardrums was masking the giants' thunderous footsteps. Connor wasn’t willing to bet his life on a mishear. Keeping low to the ground, he snuck behind the nearest oak, putting it between him and the impending doom. A tree wouldn’t save him, but it was the only plan in sight. The beast could wrap its hand around the trunk and uproot it as effortlessly as a person plucking a dandelion out of the earth. If a monster found him, it would grab Connor around his waist, hoist him fifty feet into the air to mouth level, and devour him whole. Or it might bite Connor in two before eating him. He’d witnessed both paths to death.
Images of his parents and sister screaming and thrashing in grotesque, gigantic hands looped in his mind, unleashing a cascade of hot, salty tears. He pressed his lips together so his sobs remained trapped inside his mouth. Connor squeezed his eyes shut and hushed himself to silence.
A lavender smell found Connor before the hand touched his shoulder. “We have to go now,” a girl whispered. “There’s a herd of them marching through the forest.”
“I don’t hear any.” Connor spoke before his mind had an opportunity to consider who this girl, who appeared out of nowhere, was. Connor’s brain was a muddle of sadness and fear, confusion and uncertainty.
“You wouldn’t. But I can. They’re advancing fast.” She reached for Connor’s hand and hoisted him up. She was stronger than her diminutive body suggested. As he stood, Connor noticed her pointed ears, tinged green along the edges, larger than any he’d ever seen. Her narrow eyes angled up at the corners; one iris was blue, the other brown. Her short, blonde hair was dry, despite the damp, ruddy forest. She appeared to be about seventeen, but something about how she spoke gave Connor the impression that she was older.
Days of running and evading had turned Connor’s muscles into worn rubber bands. His eyelids felt like lead. He wanted to sit down again, rest, close his eyes, and sleep. It might not be so bad if they ate me while I was dreaming. I’ll dream about Mom and Dad and Ashley.
She tugged his arm, pulling Connor like a tired dog on a leash. "This way. Hurry." Connor watched her skin change color, morphing through the entire spectrum before returning to its original pinkish hue.
The sticky mud sucked Connor's left sneaker off his foot with a cap gun pop. He turned to retrieve it.
"No time. You can get new shoes at Crylauyttu."
They raced through the forest, past clusters of glowing mushrooms, groves of golden leaves, and twisting streams filled with turtles poking their noses out of the water, toward an ominous buzzing. At first, the buzzing sounded like a distant lawnmower, but as they penetrated deeper into the woods everything vibrated like an invisible force was sawing all the forest’s trees at once.
Connor stopped and blurted, "No."
"We're going the right way, toward safety." She studied the fear that shrouded his face. "What you hear isn't them. Trust me."
He was about to protest when the ground shook, a rumble of thunder rattling the earth that almost knocked Connor off his feet. A thousand acorns fell around them.
"They'll be on us in a few minutes."
Connor pivoted three hundred sixty degrees. He cocked his head toward the north and cupped his hand around his ear. "Lead on," he urged.
They sprinted for another ten minutes, the girl skipping over fallen trees, leaf piles, and rocks, while Connor cautiously maneuvered around these obstacles.
They entered a meadow of shimmering foxgloves, strawberries, and rosemary. Luminescent tulips and baby breaths rang like wind chimes.
Connor blinked. So many bumblebees filled the meadow that they appeared as an undulating tower of yellow and black.
"They're not far behind. The footsteps are getting closer." She wiggled her ears. "Three minutes, maybe." She pointed a finger toward the bees. "Pick one."
"I don't understand."
"Pick a bee to ride."
A mask of confusion covered Connor's face. "Ride a bee?"
Connor could now hear the monsters’ horrible, guttural screeching. They are close. The earth shook like a massive earthquake winding up for its cataclysmic conclusion. Goosebumps covered him. With a trembling arm, he pointed toward the center of the bumblebee colony and said, "That one."
The girl unfastened the white satin pouch from her belt and emptied the contents onto her palm. With a single puff, she blew glitter at Connor. The glitter coalesced into a helix and then swirled around his head like a sentient tornado. Connor inhaled the particles, which his lungs tried to expel through rapid-fire sneezes. When he was done sneezing, Connor observed an enormous bee alongside him. Its beating wings blew a warm breeze.
"Where did that huge bee come—?" Connor stopped mid-sentence when he realized the bumblebee wasn't bigger. Connor could no longer see the tops of the trees. Leaves appeared as expansive as football fields, and a nearby strawberry was a dotted, red boulder. Connor’s eyes went wide.
I’m what’s changed. I’m tiny.
“Get on,” the girl commanded. She whistled and summoned another bee, which she mounted with the grace of an Olympic equestrian. The bees' wings beat slowly and rhythmically as they hovered in place.
Connor did as she said, and to his astonishment, mounted the bee without tumbling over to the other side.
The girl leaned forward and wrapped her arms as far around the bumblebee as they could go; Connor followed her lead. Baseball-sized yellow-orange pellets of sticky pollen that covered the bumblebee secured him in place.
The girl whistled again, and the bees took off, their lace wings beating into transparency. Their bees zigzagged between trees, under bushes, around rocks, dodging owls, blue jays, and the occasional dragonfly.
The wind blew Connor’s hair in every direction and billowed his shirt into a giant pillow.
The girl whistled a second time, and the bees slowed to a stop.
They hovered over a meadow protected by a dense birch grove, white sentinels guarding red, blue, and orange flowers. The bees floated a couple of feet above the ground, relative to Connor’s shrunken size. The girl and Connor dismounted.
She pulled a turquoise satchel off her belt, opened it, and brought the bag to the bees’ mouths. “Honey. They need to eat and rest.”
The bees made a num num num noise as they ate.
Shadows of foxes, deer, and bears eclipsed Connor and the girl.
Connor finally had a chance to ask, “Who are you? What’s happening?” He hyperventilated as if he, not the bees, were the one doing the flying.
She raised an eyebrow. “You know what’s happening. Ravenous monsters from above the clouds have invaded the ground lands. You’re one of the last humans left.” Her skin flashed purple for a heartbeat. “I’m Eva. I live in the forest, but even the forest isn’t safe from these beasts. We’re going to my kingdom, Crylauyttu, where we’ll be safe until”—Eva inhaled and pressed her hands against her cheeks—“there’s nothing left for them to eat, and the colossals return to their demonic realm.” As she rubbed her feet against the grass, her boots sparked. "They aren't able to invade the fairy world because you can only enter it on the back of a bumblebee.”
Connor petted his bee, which snuggled against his hand and wriggled its antennae. The bumblebee purred, filling Connor with waves of serenity. He gasped. “I don’t understand any of this.”
“The giants, you understand that part.”
Connor sniffled, took his hand off the bee, and wiped the back of his hand against his nose. He nodded. “Yes. They killed my parents and sister.”
“What don’t you understand?”
“How you did this, how you made me small. How we’re able to ride bees and fly to a place called Crylauyttu.” Connor shook his head. “This is all so terrible.”
Eva hugged Connor. He rested his head against her shoulder. After a minute, when Conner no longer trembled, she took his hands in hers, stepped back so she could look Connor in the eye, and said, “I know. But you’ll be safe with the fairies. I made you one of us.”
The ground shook, sending a flock of cardinals into the sky.
Eva mounted her bee. “They’re getting closer.”
A maniacal fee fi fo fum rocked the air.
“They smell us, they find us, they eat us. It's time to go. Are you ready?”
Connor nodded and hopped back onto his bee.
Eva whistled and the bees took flight, two blurs of yellow and black ribbons weaving their way through the forest.