The Swap

Rick Kitagawa
Mar 19, 2019 · 20 min read
Photo by Debbie Pan on Unsplash

Shivering, Erik stood atop the old stone bridge and threw the baby carrier over the thrashing river. A scream pierced the night and he could make out an old woman clutching her chest on the far bank. Why such a frail thing would be out at such a late hour was completely incomprehensible to Erik, but yet there she was. A witness. His brow furrowed and he clenched his teeth. As the woman dropped to her knees and began to scream, Erik quickly turned and hurried back towards the road.

In all regards, Erik Williams should have been happy. His wife, Stella, was expecting and he had just been promoted at work. His basketball team at the community center made the playoffs, and he was about to make his last car payment on the silver Lexus he drove.

The only thing that seemed to damper Erik’s happiness was the the lights. Erik would sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and see little glowing pink lights floating outside his second story bedroom window.

The first time Erik saw the glowing pink lights, he had awoke in the sweaty throes of a nightmare and suddenly sat up. He caught a glimpse of the lights out of the corner of his eye, but by the time his eyes could adjust to being open they were gone. He dismissed that first encounter as nothing more than the residual drip of a fading nightmare.

It was months later before he next saw the lights. He woke slowly, having to pee. This time, he pried open his eyes and saw a gentle pink haze being cast into the room. The unearthly light floated into the room like a mist. As he sat up the lights suddenly disappeared. As he stumbled to the bathroom he noted that they did not vanish like a light would if it was being turned off. The lights actually moved away as if they were glowing hummingbirds suddenly darting away from reach.

The next day Erik began an online search into what he might be seeing. He first looked at all the medical advice sites, but no one else seemed to report any symptoms similar to his. He then typed the phrase “seeing pink lights at night” and suddenly everything changed. There were hundreds of search results based on personal blogs and such, all claiming they had seen pink lights watching them at night. A surprising number were published elsewhere in Oregon and in nearby Washington state. As Erik began clicking link after link, a strange pattern began to emerge. His stomach began to tighten and he swallowed hard. The one common thread was that everyone who saw the lights was expecting a child.

When Erik returned home from work that day, he told Stella about the things he had seen, but not about the search that he had done and it’s unsettling nature. Stella listened quietly and asked Erik if he thought he should make an appointment with their family ophthalmologist. He declined and laughed it off, saying that he was probably just predicting that their baby would be a girl and he had pink on the brain. Stella leaned over and kissed him on his forehead.

“Promise me that if you keep seeing things you’ll go get it checked out. I don’t want you dying on me, okay?”

“Me caveman. Me no need doctor.”

Stella laughed and gave him a gentle kick in the pants. “I’m serious, Erik. Promise?”

“Cross my heart.” Erik winked.

“Okay then. Now help me out in the kitchen, I need you to cut the squash.”

It was weeks later before he saw the lights again. Work had been busy, and he would often sleep through the night without waking at all. Once again, as he woke with that familiar weight in his bladder, he saw the room bathed in a soft pink haze. Erik closed his eyes and slowly turned over, so that he would face the window. His eyes slowly opened a crack, but the lights were gone. The room was cold, so he hesitantly began to brace himself for getting out of bed, and just as he was about to slide out from under the comforter, he noticed a small, floating pink orb slowly grow closer to his window.

Erik froze, fully awake now, and watched as the pink glowing thing seemed to slowly move back and forth along the sill of the window, as if it was looking for something. Thoughts began to race — was it a flashlight? Why was it pink? How was it moving like that? Is it a bug? Fireflies? They don’t live west of Kansas. Laser pointer? I should see the beam then. What is that? Am I seeing things. Are my eyes messed up?

As Erik watched, the pink glowing luminescence was soon joined by another of its kind, then another, and another. Soon, the window was alight with the soft glow of cotton candy-colored lights floating back and forth. Wonder and suspicion soon gave way to basic primal needs, and Erik suddenly sat up as the pressure in his groin was growing rapidly. The lights immediately scattered, flitting for cover to the nearest side of the window. Erik ran over to the window and watched in amazement as he saw the lights zig-zag through the night sky as if they were jets trying to shake an enemy plane. Erik’s breath started to fog up the window, and the horror stories he read on the internet earlier that day suddenly became a little bit more than just stories.

As Erik relieved himself, he couldn’t help but recall all the countless tales that he had initially written off at absurd writings from obviously disturbed people. Grown adults claiming that they had seen fairies? Ridiculous. But the way that those lights seemed to fly away acting like they were afraid of being seen..well, it was hard to deny your own vision.

By morning, everything seemed like it was all a dream. Erik got a call from one of the partners informing him about a successful bid, so he left a note for Stella letting her know he’d be home late and completely forgot about the strange incident with the pink lights as he devoured his breakfast and hopped in the car. As he sped along the highway towards his firm’s office, project proposals, permit acquisitions, and blueprints filled his thoughts, and fae creatures were the furthest thing from his mind.

Over the next few months, Erik saw the strange pink lights a few more times, but like always, as soon as he moved, they would fly away. Blaming it on the stress, Erik would slink back to sleep, castaway in a sea of dreams.

Stella’s delivery was as smooth as anyone could hope. A short labor, a healthy new son, and no complications for the mother. Erik was on top of the world. They named their new son Jacob, and the 9 pound boy was the cutest kid in the maternity ward. Even when he was crying, Jacob was adorable, and already he had little strands of brilliant blond hair sprouting from his crown.

After Stella’s quick recovery, the proud parents bundled up their new love and drove home a bit exhausted and weary, but with smiles etched onto their faces. The first night home was surprisingly peaceful. Little Jacob snored and slept through the entire night in his little crib. Stella stood over the stark white crib and smiled. Erik came up beside her and wrapped her in a blanket. Soon, the new family was asleep, the soft rhythm of their breathing ushering in the night.

The first few weeks of their life with Jacob were surprisingly easy. He very rarely cried and he seemed to sleep at night and giggle at things during the day. As the weather warmed, Stella began to take him on walks, and he would always stare out of his stroller and smile in amazement at all the magical new things he saw. He seemed to really enjoy nature and so Stella began to take longer walks that would wind through the trails in the nearby forest.

One night, a warm summer breeze rolled into town, and Erik and Stella lounged on their porch with fresh mint mojitos in hand watching the moon rise high into the sky. Jacob laid in his crib behind them, gurgling and cooing. As their drinks were drained, the couple made their way back inside. As Erik showered, Stella placed Jacob in his crib and opened the window to let the steamy air escape outside. The family slept deeply that night.

The next day, Erik and Stella awoke to screaming coming from Jacob’s crib. They rushed over to see their son red-faced and kicking. His diaper was dry and he wouldn’t nurse from Stella, which confounded the couple. The concerned parents tried rocking the little child, felt for a fever, offered teething rings and pacifiers, but nothing seemed to comfort him. It was almost as if it wasn’t the same child at all.

Stella, out of options, suggested that taking Jacob for a walk might relax him. As she began to push the stroller, Erik went to lock the door. Only then, after looking back up at their bedroom did he take a moment to pause and consider the fact that their bedroom window was left open for the first time since he had seen the pink lights.

As they got closer and closer to the forest, amazingly Jacob began to calm down. His wails slowly faded and as they approached their usual path he even began to giggle.

“It’s almost as if he’s more at home out here than at home,” Stella said. Erik nodded in agreement and Jacob looked up and smiled.

By the time the family had made their lap through the familiar path, Jacob had calmed down and was fast asleep. Still slightly confused by their son’s sudden outburst, Stella and Erik walked in silence on the short trek back to their house. As Erik looked back at the forest, prior thoughts pushed aside and trivialities previously discarded were now suddenly taking on a new importance. Expecting parents. Pink lights. An open window. Fairies. The forest.

Fairies.

Erik rushed to his computer and revisited his search from months prior. Hadn’t he read something about changelings? Fae offspring being exchanged for human children? While the sheer absurdity of believing crackpot accounts of paranormal child abductions seemed crazy, wasn’t it all too much of a coincidence?

As Erik opened search result after result, link after link, his suspicions and terror soon grew as more similarities began to show themselves. Every report of seeing the pink lights was close to a forest, and every person seeing them was expecting a child. Each of these children, once born, had blond hair and soon after had a change in personality.

Night fell. Erik stood over Jacob’s crib, staring at the sleeping child. He studied every minute detail. Had Jacob always had that small birthmark on his right ear? Wasn’t he a bit plumper? Erik wiped at his eyes and told himself that he was being ridiculous. Fairies didn’t exist, and Jacob was probably just teething or something. That wouldn’t exactly explain why he calmed down as they approached the forest, but maybe it had something to do with the fresh air?

“Maybe I’m just tired from the early wake-up call. We’ve been fortunate so far — maybe the shock of having to wake up and actually tend to his Jacob for once was just messing with my head.” Erik turned to see Stella already deep in sleep, and realized he was just talking to himself. He joined Stella in bed and quickly lost himself in dark dreams.

Erik woke suddenly to the sound of laughter. Dark, scornful, high-pitched laughter. He sat up in bed to see floating pink balls of light hovering above his bed. He quickly looked towards the window, left ajar in the summer heat.

“Honey.” Erik gently rocked Stella’s shoulder. “Stel, wake up!” Stella groaned, but would not wake up. “What do you want? What did you do with Jacob?” Erik continued to nudge his sleeping wife, a bit harder this time.

“We..took him.” Barely audtible, each syllable was stretched painfully long making a faint, snake-like hiss. Erik couldn’t tell which ball of light was talking, or maybe it was all of them talking at once?

“Why? What do you want? How can we get him back?” Erik was frantic now. “Stella!” She just murmured and turned over.

“Shh. Will wake..soon.” Laughter.

“You bastards, what did you do to her?” Erik threw off the covers and swung his legs over the edge of the bed to stand. His hands darted towards the floating lights but they easily avoided him. More of that taunting, hateful laughter.

“She will..wake soon.”

“Damn you. What do you want with my son?”

“Lovely child. We..like..pretty things.” The lights danced around the room, making arcs and loops. They were enjoying this.

“What do I have to do to get him back?” Erik tried to hide the desparation in his voice.

“Tend to this one. Your..medicine..strong.”

“So if we take care of this child, you’ll return Jacob?”

“Yes.” The fairie sounded like a snake being skinned alive.

“How do I know you’ll keep your word?” The fairies laughed and began to spin around the room. “What kind of medicine does it need?”

Suddenly, they all rushed towards the window. Erik suddenly leaped to close the window but the fairies were much too fast. By the time he even reached the glass pane the pink lights were already fading into the depths of the forest. Sweat rolled into his eye, burning. As he wiped at his eyes, he could hear Stella begin to stir.

“Sweetie?” Stella called out, groggily. Erik looked back towards the bed. “Did you get cold and want to close the window?”

Erik exhaled. He hadn’t realized he was holding his breath. “I…I’m fine.”

Stella approached him to embrace him. As her hands reached his shoulders, she suddenly recoiled. “Jeez, Erik, you’re soaking wet! Are you feeling alright?” Stella quickly put her hand to Erik’s forehead. “You’re burning up, let’s get you in some dry clothes and back to bed.” Erik stumbled towards the dresser, and began to peel off his t-shirt. Suddenly, his eyelids felt heavy..oh so heavy.

Erik groaned and as he tried to sit up he felt a twang of pain come from his left hand. As his eyes adjusted to the dim lights, he could hear beeps and air being released and saw a tube extending from his hand to a sack of fluids suspended above his head.

“Erik, honey? Are you awake?” Erik was suddenly aware of Stella’s presence. She sat up in her vinyl-backed hospital chair and folded up the magazine she was reading.

“Yeah, I’m up. What happened?” His head pounded, and he felt surprisingly chilly despite the fact that there were at least two blankets, maybe more, piled atop him.

“You were about to change and you just passed out. Scared me half to death. I managed to slow your fall so you didn’t bash your head on the floor, but you nearly took me along with you.” Stella smiled warmly at him. Erik managed a meek smile back.

“Guess I gotta lay off the ice cream.” Erik squinted a few times and rubbed his sinuses. “Ug, I feel like hell. What’s wrong with me?”

“The doctor said it’s a severe bacterial infection. Basically a cold on steroids. You were extremely dehydrated and feverish, thus the IV.” Stella placed her hand on Erik’s forehead its coolness made Erik sign in relief. “You’re still pretty warm, but with the antibiotics, the nurse said you should break your fever soon.”

“Thanks for taking care of me, Stel.”

“Of course, silly.” Stella leaned over and kissed Erik’s forehead. “No dying on me, okay Mr. Caveman?” Erik chuckled and closed his eyes. “Get some rest now. It’s 4am.”

“That early?” Erik shifted in his bed. “Sorry I kept you up.”

“Don’t worry about it. Just go back to sleep.”

“I love you Stel.”

“Love you too, honey.” Stella sat back down and sent a smile Erik’s way one last time before she reclined into the darkness of the hospital room.

Erik closed his eyes and tried to think of something other than the pounding in his temples and the congestion in his nose. He was surprised that he didn’t remember how he had even gotten to the hospital at all, or falling, or.. Erik’s eyes flew open.

The memories of the pink lights and their sinister little whispering rushed into sharp focus. They had given him instructions. Take care of their child, and they’d return Jacob. But would they return him alive or even in one piece? He remembered their cold, cruel laughter and shivered. Where was Jacob?

“Stel?”

“Yeah hun?”

“Where’s Jacob?”

“He’s at home with Amy. As soon as I got off the phone with 911 I called mom, and she called Amy for me. I packed you up into the ambulance just as she was arriving.”

“That’s good. Remind me to send your sister a thank-you card.”

“I will. Now get some rest. Goodnight.”

“Goodnight Stel.” Erik closed his eyes again. He wondered if it was all a dream. Creepy talking fairies, Stella not being able to wake up — it was all too crazy to believe. Maybe he was just feverish and hallucinated the whole thing. If he was sick enough to pass out, he was probably sick enough to conjure up all his fears into some grand mirage. Yes, that was it. He had merely created his own little hallucination after reading too many anecdotes of fairies replacing babies with their own fairy-children. Mix those stories with a crazy cold and Jacob crying for the first time and you get one beast of a hallucination. This thought comforted Erik, and soon he was sleeping once more.

After Erik was mostly recovered and back home, he noticed that Jacob was crying more and more. Even if Stella would take him for a walk through the woods, Jacob would still shift restlessly in his stroller. He also seemed to be losing weight rapidly. Their pediatrician examined Jacob and could find nothing wrong with the child. Stella and Erik were stumped. Erik’s paternity leave was rapidly coming to and end, and he wanted to figure out what was wrong with the child so Stella wouldn’t be left alone dealing with the crying baby.

As the days progressed with no new developments or ideas, Erik once again began to question the validity of what happened the night he had gotten sick. Had he really hallucinated the visit from the fairies? They did mention that human medicine was strong, but the doctors couldn’t find anything wrong with the child. How could he medicate a child for some unknown illness?

Erik decided that he needed to put his fears to rest once and for all. If he could just test to see if the child was a changeling, he could simply dispel his ridiculous notion that his child had been kidnapped and get on with finding what was really ailing his son. After consulting some old books concerning the occult and fairies at the library, he determined that he would test a few mythological folktales about the things fairies hated. After a trip to the local herbalist and a long drive up to his aunt’s ranch, he was ready.

It was late and Stella was already asleep by the time Erik arrived back home. He thought it would be the perfect time to do his silly little test without her ever knowing about how stupid he was being letting himself be swayed by folk tales and blogs of anonymous wackos. Erik approached Jacob’s crib to find the child sleeping soundly. A rare occasion indeed. He slowly reached into the paper bag he was carrying, trying not to make much rustling. First, he removed a jar of dried St. John’s Wort. He quietly unscrewed the glass jar and took a pinch of the herb and held it close to Jacob’s skin. Erik shook his head as he replaced the herbs back in its container.

Erik then removed the old cast-iron horseshoe from the bag. He had read that fairies were especially sensitive to iron and horseshoes in particular. He held the cool metal object in his hand and began to move it closer to the sleeping baby. He moved slowly and tentatively, making sure that his grip was firm on the heavy horseshoe.

Suddenly, a low guttural snarl came from the crib and the child began to squirm. Erik quickly pulled back and the child was still again. A sick twisting feeling grew in Erik’s gut and he once again slowly moved the iron closer to the sleeping child. The guttural moan was apparent again. Erik swallowed hard and gently brushed the horseshoe against the child’s skin.

The thing shrieked and writhed, its eyes flashing open. Teeth exploded into the thing’s mouth where no teeth should have been, and shriveled stone-grey flesh lived where pink baby fat should have been. The changeling looked up at Jacob, it’s glowing yellow eyes burning with rage.

“It hurts me!!”

“I..I didn’t mean to, I just wanted to know-”

“What’s going on in here?” Erik looked up to see Stella sitting up, rubbing the sleep from her eyes.

“Stel, uh, I…” Erik stammered, and quickly turned back to the changeling. The creature hissed, taking Erik by surprise. His grip on the horseshoe failed for a moment and the piece of metal fell onto the changeling’s chest. It began to bawl.

“Erik!” Stella was suddenly up and running towards the crib. She rushed past him, pushing him aside. “What are you doing? Are you crazy?”

Speechless, Erik looked back at the changeling. It was back to looking like Jacob, and a dark, eggplant-colored splotch began to bloom on its chest. Erik tried to stammer an answer but could only manage to stammer.

“Jesus Erik, look at this bruise! What are you doing to our son? Are you out of your mind? Look what you did to him!”

“It’s not our son!” Erik blurted at last. Stella inhaled quickly and sharply and stepped back. Erik continued. “It’s not our son, it’s a changeling.”

“Erik, what are you talking about? Are you feeling okay?”

“Stel, honey, I know it sounds crazy, but I was using this horseshoe- iron to test to see if it was a changeling or Jacob.”

“A..a what?” Stella held the bawling Jacob in her arms. “Have you lost your mind?”

“No, honey, I know it sounds crazy, but well. I’ve actually seen the fairies, and I know they’ve stolen Jacob and replaced him with this..this fairy baby. Let me just put the horseshoe on him and you’ll see him change into his true form!”

“Erik, you just dropped a horseshoe on our child’s chest! You could have killed him! You’re not coming close to Jacob again with that thing.” Stella stepped toward the door.

“Stella!” Erik put the bag on the floor. “Honey, just listen to me for five minutes. Put the ch…put Jacob down, and let’s just sit down and talk.”

Stella’s eyes nervously jumped around the room. She gently rocked the changeling back and forth. Surprisingly, it stopped screaming. Apparently, it was fast asleep. She looked back up at Erik, who had his hands up in peaceful surrender. “Okay, I’ll listen to you for five minutes, but after that, if I decide you’re crazy, you’ll go with me to the hospital, okay?”

“Deal.” Erik slowly stepped forward. Stella looked down at the now-sedated changeling and gently placed him back in the crib.

“ Let’s talk in the kitchen. I could use some coffee.” Erik walked towards the door, and Stella shrunk back as he passed. Erik sighed, and slowly walked down the stairs.

As he poured himself a cup of coffee, he turned to see Stella cautiously approach the table. “You want some?”

Stella shook her head. Erik noticed that she had her cell phone in her hand. “You’ve got five minutes. Go.”

“I know this sounds crazy, but while you were pregnant, I would wake up sometimes in the middle of the night and I would see this pink orbs of light — fairies, floating around outside our window. I thought I was just tired, or stressed out, or was seeing things, but it happened more than once. They looked like they were trying to get into our bedroom from the window, and..” Erik went corpse-white. “Honey, when you went to bed, did you leave the window open?”

“Why does it matter?”

“Damn it, Stella, did you leave the window open?”

“Erik, calm down, you’re scaring me. I don’t know, I..I don’t remember.”

“Goddammit!” Erik’s coffee cup shattered on the floor as he ran back up the stairs.

“Erik, what are you doing?” Stella’s cries were soon muffled as she scrambled to chase after her husband.

Erik flung open their bedroom door. The curtains were moving, floating like specters in the cool summer breeze. The distance from the door to the crib felt like an eternity, and when Erik reached it he saw that the child was still sound asleep. He picked up the child and wrapped it in a blanket. Stella was there suddenly, and she grabbed Erik’s arm.

“Put. Jacob. Down.” The fire in Stella’s eyes burned bright. Her spunk, no, her strength, was what attracted Erik to Stella in the first place. He had seen how scary she could be when she had to be, and right now she was terrifying. Erik’s gut clenched and he shrugged off her grip. He was still much larger than she was, and although Stella commanded presence, so could he. He pulled away and the blanket covering Jacob fell to the ground.

“You’re wrong. It’s not Jacob.”

“Damn it, Erik, what’s wrong with you? That’s our son!” Stella’s voice cracked.

“Stel, I know it sounds insane, but you have got to trust me. This is not our Jacob. It’s a changeling.”

“Erik, you dropped a horseshoe on our son, what if his ribs are cracked, I mean look at this bruise-” Stella gasped. There was no longer any bruise on the child’s body.

“See! There’s the proof! You saw that bruise, where did it go? Humans can’t heal that fast.” Erik bent down and picked up the blanket. He walked over to the closet and removed the baby carrier.

“What are you doing?” Stella slumped down against the wall. “Erik?” He ignored her and lay the child in the carrier and picked it up by the handle. “Where are you going?” Stella began to cry as Erik walked past her. He paused for a moment and turned back to her.

“I’m going to get our son back.”

Erik was in the forest before he knew it, and although the tree cover made it dark, the full moon shone bright and he could easily stay along the familiar path.

“Where are you fairies? Come out now!” Erik called out again and again into the darkness. He strained his eyes to see any sort of pinkish glow, but all he saw was the soft cool glow of the moon filtering through the trees. “Damn you, come out here!”

Erik quickly found himself at the far end of the loop. If he continued, he’d only find himself back where he started. He set off the trail and began hiking through the woods, stumbling towards the heart of the forest. As he moved slowly through the redwoods, the carrier was constantly jostled, but surprisingly, no complaints were heard from the sleeping child.

Erik slogged on for what seemed like hours. His voice became strained from shouting and soon he could only croak a hoarse whimper. Still, Erik continued on, desperate to find the fae creatures and get Jacob back.

The sound of a car rapidly approaching startled Erik. Lights pierced through the night and just as suddenly faded. Highway 30. Erik mentally retraced his steps and figured he was close to the Kittridge exit, which meant that he was close to that old bridge that ran over the Columbia. Erik quickly ran across the highway, and shouted back towards the forest.

“This is your last chance, you bastards!” Erik’s ragged voice seemed to hang in the air, but no reply came. He let a curse quietly pass his lips and quickly made his way past the small, nearby lake. Soon, he could see the bridge in the distance. As he approached, his footsteps faltered, but he pressed on, shoes creaking on the tiny gravel. The roar of the river began to drown out his thoughts, and he slowly dragged his feet to the center of the bridge. He looked back one last time towards the woods beckoning; pleading with his eyes, but if he expected a response, none came.

As Erik walked home, the forest seemed darker than before. Thankfully, he could no longer hear the screaming woman, and he was glad to have both hands to navigate the branches that seemed to reach out and scratch at his flesh. Looking at the moon, he could swear it was grinning at him and he felt a chill in his veins that he had never felt before. As Erik approached the edge of the woods, he saw a single pink light darting through the trees.

“You. What do you want now? Where were you when I called for you?”

“Thank you..human.”

Erik raised an eyebrow. “What the hell are you talking about?” The pink orb quickly spun around Erik and then slowed right in front of his face. The glow was just bright enough to obscure any small features, but Erik could see that indeed, the little flowing light was humanoid.

“Your medicine…is strong.”

“What medicine? I didn’t give the changeling anything, what are you talking about?” The fairy laughed his cold shriek of a laugh.

“”Foolish man. Your metal. It…cures us.” Erik’s lungs began to work harder and his fists tightened into balls.

“No. No, wait. Are you saying that..that iron actually helps you?”

“It is a painful process..but..yes.”

Erik wiped his hands on his pants. “Wi…will you still give me back Jacob?”

The fairy exploded with laughter again. “Silly human. We..gave him back as soon as you healed our son.”

Erik fell to his knees. The fairy cackled again as it ascended up into the dark branches overhead. Erik let his head droop to the ground and began to sob. While the approaching sirens grew louder, all Erik could hear was laughter.

Originally published at rickkitagawa.com.

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