Her Neighbor's Keeper

by Jessica Snell

There were three rules at the Grove, the high-density housing unit where Lena lived:
  1. Bodily autonomy is to be respected. (This meant: no touching anyone without their permission.) 
  2. Spatial autonomy is to be respected. (This meant: your belongings must fit within your cubicle.)
  3. Resource allocation is to be equitable. (This meant: no hogging the bathrooms.)
Other cubicles in the Grove were constantly in danger of breaking Rule 2, but hoarding had never been a problem for Lena. The only thing she kept in her cubicle, besides the very basics of clothing and toiletries, was the terrarium her grandmother had given her. It was her sole inheritance—not valuable, but pretty.

And Lena couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if she put a fairy patch on it.


If I put the fairy patch on Nana’s terrarium, it might ruin it.

Fairy patches were unpredictable. That was the fun of them. They were like those stupid little scratch-off cards the grocers offered when you bought the products they were trying to move that week: probably all you’d see once you rubbed away the matte gray coating with your fingernail was a half-off coupon for some name-brand chips that were twice the price they should be anyway. But maybe, maybe, you would be the lucky customer who won the jackpot.

Maybe you’d be the one in a billion whose life suddenly changed.


Lena’s friend, Katz, had a fairy patch that had punched a hole in the wall of his work locker. When he peeked through it, he could see the stars.

Her friend Essie had a fairy patch she’d put on her water dispenser, and on the third Thursday of every month, the water that came out smelled like rosemary and pumpkins.

Her Aunt Herbert had a fairy patch she’d put on an antique handbell, and now whenever she touched the handbell, it rang out the numbers of pi to ten places.

Those were the coolest fairy patch results Lena’d heard of—at least, in her own personal circle.

Most fairy patches were clunkers. They did something, sure, but nothing interesting. She’d only ever owned two herself, and one of them had made a patch of rust appear in the middle of a plexiglass screen—must be magic, because plexiglass doesn’t rust. The other had turned a lock of her hair into cotton candy. She’d eaten it, and then she’d been left with a weird, short patch of hair for a while.

Putting fairy patches on yourself was generally regarded as stupid. At least, putting them on parts of yourself that were alive was. Hair was dead, and so not too risky. But people that put them on their skin tended to regret it. Sure, there was that one lucky stiff who’d sprouted wings that actually let them fly, but it was much more likely that your face would turn to stone, and you’d die.

Or your torso would melt, and you’d die.

Or your hips would become music, and you’d die.

Lena wouldn’t put the fairy patch on herself. Not this time.


It was Saturday night, the Grove was full, and Lena was all alone.

Though not as all alone as she wished she were, because of Ms. Heron, the woman who lived above her. Ms. Heron was never quiet. Worse yet, she was never unobtrusive. Crumbs and drinks were always spilling out of Ms. Heron’s cubicle and down into Lena’s.

Lena had reported Ms. Heron twice for violations of Rule 2. That night, she was ready to do it again, because a new line of droplets, suspiciously wine-red, was making its leisurely way down the right-hand wall. But she knew a third violation would get Ms. Heron kicked out of the Grove, and the other options for housing in the area were not great.

Lena glared at the wine-red dribble of liquid. The foremost drop halted on its way down the wall, as if the smear it had left behind itself had taken so much of its mass that it didn’t have enough weight left to force its way further.

But then another, bigger droplet followed, and Lena had to dive towards it with a towel to keep it from reaching her shelf.

Now she had a wine-red stained towel.

And she was furious.

After all, what right had Ms. Heron to make their home uninhabitable? Ms. Heron’s issues were not Lena’s responsibility.

After all, Nana was gone, and Lena had to take care of herself now.

So Lena made two calls.

With one, she reported Ms. Heron’s violation.

With the other, she told Gwen that she did want to purchase the fairy patch after all.

After her first phone call, a messenger came and tacked a paper titled Notice to Vacate on Ms. Heron’s door-wall. Ms. Heron slid the door-wall open, looked out, and sent up a wail.

After her second phone call, a different messenger came and delivered a package to Lena. Lena opened the package, took out the fairy patch, and held it reverently in her palm for one long moment. The airy-light neutralization paper it was encased in trembled under her exhalation. After breathing deeply once more, Lena carefully, reverently, peeled it open and placed it on her Nana’s terrarium. Then she put her chin in her hands, and she waited.


Nothing happened.

Well, of course, something happened. Something always did, when it came to fairy patches. That had been proven.

But whatever had happened, Lena couldn’t see it.

Above her, Ms. Heron’s sniffles came and went. Sometimes she seemed to get a hold of herself, and sometimes she shouted out wails of grief and anger.

Lena regretted her first phone call already. But what could she do? Phone calls couldn’t be unmade. Fairy patches couldn’t be unstuck.

And the fairy patch hadn’t even changed color. It just glimmered, almost iridescent, on the side of the glass.

Lena stared harder at her grandmother’s terrarium—her grandmother’s beautiful terrarium, with its small hill of perfect moss, its little spill of white pebbles that hugged the curve of the glass like a gravel seashore, its tiny forest of feathery ferns—and she sighed.

Whatever had happened, she couldn’t see it.

Oh well.

At least it hadn’t cost too much.


Lena woke in the middle of the night, and saw a light in her Nana’s terrarium, deep in the thicket of ferns.

The tiny, miniature ferns.

The ferns that were so few and so small that there was no deep to them.

Lena sat up in bed, her palm braced on her pillow.

The terrarium was a little world now. The light in the fern forest flickered like it was a campfire deep in some tree-ringed grove. The white pebbles did not move, but when Lena looked at them, her mind filled with the low roar of an ocean. When Lena looked at the moss, it wasn’t just a hill of moss—it was a mossy hill.

Lena leaned forward and reached out her hand towards the terrarium.

As she touched it with her finger, the glass yielded slightly, almost as if it were taffy and not glass.

And Lena heard a voice, not with her ears, but still echoing between them, as if her head had become an empty auditorium, filled with the ringing of a loudspeaker.

Do not go in alone.

In? How would she go in?

She pushed her finger harder against the glass, and in she went.


Lena stood on a mossy hill, underneath a night sky full of stars, clutching her pillow. The wind lifted the small hairs at the back of her neck.

The crash of waves wasn’t a suggestion now. She could hear it, but when she turned and gazed down the hill, it was frightening that she could not see it. There was a great darkness there—a suggestion of a vast, cold infinity of water—and it was a moonless night. Only if she looked away from the blackness of the ocean could she almost, maybe, catch a hint of its movement at the edges of her vision.

But when she looked down the hill in the other direction, she saw the dancing light of flames in the forest below her.

It was real.

Do not go in alone.

The warning hung in her mind like a hummingbird in flight, moving in no direction at all and yet not falling to the ground.

I am in already, she told the warning, and so what good are you now?

The light flickering in the forest below her was warm and yellow. It did not grow; it was clearly a flame contained.

Behind her, the loud, withdrawing roar of the waves over tumbling rocks was cold—cold, and inevitable.

Lena started down the hill towards the forest.


The ferny, feathery branches of the trees combed and pulled at and tangled her hair as if they were clumsy toddlers and she their only doll.

Lena pressed on towards the flickering light.

And there was its source: a simple campfire in a ring of rocks. By its light, she could see so much more. The forest was full—full of crockery scattered in piles, cuckoo clocks nailed to tree trunks, racks of old dresses trimmed in lace, baskets of sweet-smelling fruit, and icy tubs full of ale.

Now that she was in the light, she should have felt better. Nothing could sneak up on her now.

But the forest in the light was much, much worse than the hill and the ocean in the dark. Its hoard of things overflowed like Ms. Heron’s cubicle. What was a horrible, disorderly place like this doing in the middle of her grandmother’s beautiful terrarium?

Lena wanted to gather her tangled hair back into its neat bun, so she set down the pillow she still clutched. There on the ground, the pillow slowly shook itself, like a confused dog. Then out from underneath it, a dark blue velvet cushion wriggled into the light. Then a small linen-encased throw pillow. Then a long, chenille-covered body pillow, emerging and emerging and emerging, like an endless, pale, green earthworm. Lena swallowed against the bile in her throat and turned away, not wanting to see what might come out from under it next.

Slowly, afraid of what kind of mini homunculi might emerge from her own footprints, Lena backed away from the crackling fire. You might live forever here, she decided, eating out of those baskets of fruit and happily drunk on the bottles of icy ale in those tubs, but what kind of life would it be?

Do not go in alone. Maybe the warning had come because it knew she would be terrified, and the very worst thing was to be terrified in solitude.

She ran from the forest. A salt tang filled her nostrils at the same moment that the air grew colder, and she heard the sea. A few steps further and she saw her mistake: she’d fled in the wrong direction, and now she was on the shore of the sea.

She had come full circle in the terrarium.

She stood still, breathing in the cool air, delighting in the feeling of space around her.

She stood in that bliss for she knew not how long, but eventually, she walked back into the forest because she was hungry. Though she cringed away from the overflowing stacks of household ephemera, she found that the beer in the frosty tubs was indeed tasty, and the fruit in the baskets indeed filled her stomach.

And no mini-Lenas grew in her footsteps.

After she ate and drank her fill, she walked back out to the seashore, and this time climbed the first few feet of the hill and lay down on the moss.

She closed her eyes and felt the coolness of the air. She opened her ears and delighted in the restless, constant sound of the sea. It was clean, and clear. Everything had its place, and everything was lovely.

You could live here, Lena thought.

She could.

And then, Lena decided she would.


After some time, the ground shook, tumbling Lena off the hill.

She was on the shore now, the pebbles beneath her feet rising and spinning and banging against her ankles. And then the sea was coming in too—not with its ceaseless, never-changing waves, but with a fury. She fell, swallowed saltwater, and struggled to stand again.

She heard a wail, loud and long. It was a woman’s voice, utterly heartbroken, sorrowing beyond words. Desperate. And it came from the far side of the sea.

The far side of the sea. The far side of the sea was glass, Lena remembered. Just glass.

She had to get to the glass. She had to get out.

So she dove into the sea and swam towards the sound of the wailing.


Lena fell onto her bed, catching her grandmother’s terrarium in her hands as she did. Around her, her cubicle shook, and the wails were no longer distant, but right above her.

Ms. Heron was being forcibly evicted, and the struggle was shaking their entire wall here in the Grove. The jostling had shaken not just the terrarium from its shelf, but all of Lena’s belongings from their places and onto her bed.

Lena’s hair was wet and her clothing sodden and her eyes still stung with salt.

Ms. Heron’s wails went on and on.

Lena lay there, clutched her grandmother’s terrarium, and listened.


The important thing was that everything had its proper place. That is what Lena reminded herself of later that evening. Now Lena was putting her tiny home back to rights, with everything where it belonged.

Nana’s terrarium took longer. The fall had shaken all of it about, and Lena had to reach into the small opening with long tweezers and gingerly rearrange each pebble, each tiny fern, each clump of soil.

But by morning, everything was where it should be, and everything that should not be there was not.

I am sorry, Ms. Heron.

Lena did not push against the glass of her terrarium again.


And then she did. Because the call of the ocean, the magic of the dark, moonless sky, and the sweetness of the air blowing on top of the mossy hill was more than she could resist.

Do not go in alone, repeated the warning as she entered, but it was easier to ignore now that she knew it was a warning without teeth.

She could not stay forever, she knew that. She had to work, to pay rent, so that the terrarium had a safe shelf to stay on, so that she herself could visit it night after night after night.

But she loved it, and she could not leave it.

Do not go in alone, it told her, and every time she hardened her heart against the warning, until her heart became hard indeed, until it was like glass in her chest: cold and brittle and smooth as the outside of the terrarium itself.

And then, one day, on the way home from work through the crowded city tunnels that protected them all from the hot horror that the surface of their world had become, Lena saw Ms. Heron.

She was homeless.

Somehow, Lena had pictured Ms. Heron finding her way into the low-income housing out by the entrance to the mines, but no, she clearly had no home at all.

And Lena’s glass heart shattered, becoming a whirlwind of shards that pierced her, painfully, until it felt like regret was leaking out of every orifice, hot and salty as a gush of blood.

Lena ran away, as fast as she could, towards the shelter of her cubicle in the Grove.

Toward the comfort of her terrarium.


Lena stood on the top of her mossy hill, arms outstretched to catch every sensation the cool night breeze offered. Even her hair was loose now, blowing around her face, stinging her cheeks and drawing tears from her eyes.

It wasn’t a warning, was it? she asked her terrarium, not expecting that it owned any more words than the ones it had already offered her.

It was an instruction, wasn’t it? she asked her Nana, and, though she knew better, she couldn’t help feeling the hope for an answer—a real answer, an audible answer—rising within her chest.

No one answered, and Lena bowed her head, knowing she did not need an answer.

And that she did not deserve one, anyway.


Lena missed her Nana. She missed her more than she had missed anyone, ever, and she realized she’d spent the last decade of her life trying hard not to notice that she did.

Nana would have said that her neighbor was her responsibility.

Nana would have said that God always provided the things he wanted you to give.

Nana would have said that it was all grace, both the giving and the receiving.

…Nana would have known how to talk to Ms. Heron kindly.

Lena did not, but she went and talked to her all the same.

Ms. Heron did not want to come. Ms. Heron was mad at her. Ms. Heron yelled at her.

Lena listened in silence, and then she spoke her message again.

She came back the next night, and the next, and the next, until Ms. Heron said yes.

Her cubicle was never large, but it was so much smaller with two people in it instead of just one.

And Ms. Heron smelled.

But Lena smiled, and thanked her for coming, and then, with her permission, took her hand, and pressed her finger against the glass, feeling it give where the fairy patch adhered to it, like it was actually as soft as taffy, and not as hard as the shards of her heart.

This time, when she found herself on the hill, and Ms. Heron standing beside her, there was no warning to echo in her ears.

And no instruction either.

But that was okay, because Lena knew what to do.

“Come with me,” she said, and she led Ms. Heron into the forest.


The important thing, Lena reminded herself, was that everything was in its proper place.

The forest suited Ms. Heron like the hilltop suited Lena.

Lena could not bring herself to say that it suited her more. The clean, cold air of the hilltop, the bright darkness of the night sky full of stars, the endless, ceaseless, terrifying roar of the sea—these were Lena’s own heart, and they were a kinship she’d found nowhere else.

But the forest did suit Ms. Heron, who sank into a pile of crocheted lace curtains with a sigh that seemed to come from the bottom of her mismatched boots. Her movement unsettled a twinkling pile of glass chandelier crystals, and as they slid and fell against her, she buried her hands in them and came up with fistfuls of treasure clutched in her fingers, and she laughed.

“You can stay,” Lena told her, “if you want.”

“Darling,” said Ms. Heron, reaching out one hand towards a basket of fruit while the other reached up to touch a cuckoo clock nailed to the tree trunk behind her, “are you quite sure? I’ve never seen fairy patch magic like this.”

“Me either,” said Lena.

“You’ll visit me sometimes?”

Lena had not planned to, and the idea of it was almost worse than the clean cut of abandoning the place altogether.

But… “Yes,” said Lena, “if you want.”

Nana’s terrarium had become a home, a place of welcome.

That was very Nana.

And it made Nana feel close.

And that feeling was good enough that Lena almost didn’t mind that she’d now be merely a guest in the one place that felt most like home.

But she still did mind a little.

I might have found the grace of giving.

But I’m not quite
full of grace.

Which made her think even more of Nana, and her hours and hours of prayer, the beads turning over and over in her hands.

Oh, Nana, she thought, pray for me.

And then, even more hesitantly, she tried a prayer for herself.

Oh Lord…

…help, I guess. Please, just… help.

Then she said goodbye to Ms. Heron, and left the forest behind.


Lena did not let herself linger on the seashore, or indulge herself in one last, solitary climb up the mossy hillside. No mess, no fuss, no second thoughts.

But she did walk slowly as she waded into the waves.

And she did take a very, very deep breath indeed, as she readied herself for her dive towards the glass. The sweetness of the air here was different than the taste of the air anywhere else in the world.

She raised her hands above her head, preparing to dive into the water.

And as she did, she heard a voice.

Bless you, my child, it said.

Thank you, Lena thought.

And then she dove.

Jessica Snell is a writer whose work has appeared in Compelling Science Fiction, Tor.com, Mysterion, and more. She is also a freelance editor who loves helping other writers polish their books till they shine! (Read more about her editing work here.) In her free time, she reads, knits, and spends time with her husband and their four children. You can follow her on Twitter here.

Author’s Note: I didn’t consciously set out to write “Her Neighbor’s Keeper” as a meditation on grief, but I wrote it as my father was dying, and looking back, I can see him all through it. Dad was one of the most extreme introverts I’ve ever known, and yet he was loved by so many people. I think the key is that he took all the things he studied and learned in his time alone, and shared them with others. He loved his long bike rides—but he also made sure local students knew they could get their own bikes repaired in his garage. He loved collecting knives—but he also gave them away. He loved long hours quietly studying the Bible, but he dedicated his life to sharing it too—first as a missionary, and later as a university professor and a deacon.

Dad knew how to love his Lord and his neighbors. This story’s for him.

“Her Neighbor’s Keeper” by Jessica Snell. Copyright © 2024 by Jessica Snell.
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  1. thanks for sharing your beautiful story.

    1. I'm so glad you liked it! Thank you for letting me know.


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