Wednesday, October 29, 2014
THE BLACK DOOR
by James Raney
“I just don’t get why we have to go see Grandma today?” said Tommy Woodson from the prison that was the backseat of his parent’s SUV.
About fourteen photos of Chaney Mulligan’s birthday party had just popped up on Tommy’s Instagram. Chaney by the pool. Chaney eating pizza. Chaney with her arm around Peter Mills. Wait…Peter Mills? If Tommy wasn’t so worried about messing up his hair he would have slammed his head against the car window.
“What’s wrong with going next week?”
“We said we would go next week last week,” said Tommy’s mom, Gloria. Of the three people in the car Tommy was pretty sure she was the only one who really wanted to be there.
“Come on, big guy,” said his dad, Paul, as he fiddled with the radio, trying to catch the game on any AM station that was still in English. “It won’t be that bad. You’ve got your phone with you.”
“Which you will not get out while you’re visiting with your grandmother,” said his mom.
“Then what I’m supposed to do the whole time?” Tommy finished his question with a sigh that was both too loud and too long.
“Hey, you got a respiratory problem there, big guy?” said his dad. That made Tommy sigh again. He hated when his dad said that. His mom turned around in her seat to glare at him from around her headrest.
“Tommy Woodson, your grandmother is getting very old.” His mom shook her head and started breathing loudly through her nose, which was the sign for Tommy to shut up and deal. “She is getting very old. She asked us to come this weekend. She specifically asked to see you. You will not disrespect her by burying your face in that phone the entire time.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Tommy mumbled. The moment his mom turned around his phone pinged. Peter Mills was kissing Chaney Mulligan on the cheek. This time Tommy let his head thunk against his window.
It wasn’t that Tommy didn’t care about his grandma. When he was still a little kid his grandma used to have a home out in the country. He’d loved visiting her then. But last year his grandma had gotten too old to live on her own. Now she was in an old person’s home called Summer Glenn. Summer Glenn smelled like pee. Tommy half wondered if there was an app on his phone that could get rid of gross smells.
The country home wouldn’t have been so bad for an afternoon though. There were strange rooms there, rooms that seemed to lead nowhere and everywhere. There were places in the house that logic told him should have opened to this hallway or that window, but instead seemed to exist in the cracks between two walls, bigger and roomier than they had any right to be. The house was full of places Tommy had to remember how to find each time he came to visit.
Grandma’s old house had been far out of the city, made of old stone with little brick passageways into cloistered gardens, where sad-faced statues and bubbling fountains dwelt behind small iron fences, wrapped in the same ivy that climbed the walls. His grandma kept a toy box for Tommy in her living room, which smelled like coffee and chocolate. In the toy box had been Tommy’s favorite plaything of all – a wooden sword, sanded smooth as stone, fitting Tommy’s hand as though it had been carved for just the curve of his palm.
Tommy’s dad had frowned at the sword every time it came out of the toy chest. He thought it would teach Tommy to do all sorts of terrible things, like hit other kids or talk back to his teachers. But Tommy had never been prone to that sort of thing. On the contrary, his desire for the sword was far nobler than his father could ever guess. He needed it for all the hobgoblins.
The countryside around grandma’s house had been practically overrun by the nasty critters. They were everywhere. Hobgoblins were disgusting and cruel, breaking people’s favorite stuff, pulling buttons off shirts and coats, tangling Christmas lights, stealing socks, springing leaks in garden hoses, and intentionally tripping people as they walked by, all so they could soak in the small miseries of human existence while cackling with laughter.
But armed with his wooden sword, Tommy had wiped the grins off the hobgoblins’ warty faces. He drove them from the walls and chased them to the forest edge at the corner of his grandma’s land. He’d raised his sword in triumph and howled like a wolf with every victory.
Tommy almost smiled thinking back to those times - until Chaney posted to Facebook that she was having the BEST PARTY OF HER LIFE. Tommy sighed again. His face slid farther down the window as the car pulled into the drive at Summer Glenn.
The smell of old people and pee hit Tommy’s nostrils the moment he walked through the door, followed quickly by the receptionist’s gurgly voice assaulting his ears. It was going to be a long afternoon.
But more disturbing than those usual annoyances was the sound of an old man raging at the end of the hall. His voice was sharp and biting. It raked like a cheese grater across the back of Tommy’s head. The old man’s words were so ugly and loud that they managed to tear Tommy’s face from his phone.
The old man sat in a wheelchair, screaming at the orderly who was trying to push the chair into the courtyard. “I don’t want to go outside, you dolt. Can’t you see how sunny it is out there? It’s like a tropical island. I’ll roast like a fat pig on a spit in that kind of sun, you fool. What are you trying to do? Cook me alive? You’d like that wouldn’t you? You’d like to see me darken and roast and turn to ash – wouldn’t you?”
The old jerk was really tiny, thought Tommy, even for a bent-over codger. Greasy strands of gray hair crawled over his spotted scalp. His yellowed and crinkly skin hung limp from his bones. He had a long nose, which seemed to reach from his face, and even longer fingers, tipped by nails left unclipped for ages.
Right in the middle of the man’s tantrum, when he was accusing the orderly of wanting to know how his sun-cooked flesh might taste, he suddenly took a start, as though he’d been stung by a bee. The old man looked around, searching for the offending bug. He slowly turned and glared down the hallway. There he found Tommy. The old man grinned with a knowing smile that said: there’s the little bastard that stung me.
The man’s eyes seemed to grow in his head like round black buttons. His smiling lips peeled away from purple gums full of pointy teeth. He raised one bony hand to wiggle his talon fingers at the boy at the other end of the hall.
Tommy whipped his face back to his phone but couldn’t remember what he had been trying to do the moment before. He realized he’d barely been breathing as he’d stared into the old man’s black eyes. He watched stupidly as the sparkling candies piled past the limit and ended his game. But as he and his parents rounded the corner into his grandma’s hallway, Tommy stole one more glance to where the old man had been, only to find that he and the orderly were no longer there.
“Hello, Tommy Woodson,” said Tommy’s grandma as he stepped out from behind his parents.
Tommy’s mom smacked the iPhone down from his face so he would look at the old woman who had so urgently asked to see him.
Tommy had to stifle his startled eyebrows and opening mouth. His grandma looked so… old. She had always looked old, even when she’d lived in the country house and had given him his wooden sword. But now she looked old, like a plant that needed to be watered or a building waiting to be torn down. There was more than just time showing in her face. The first tendrils of death were creeping in at the edges. The entire room was as depressing as death. There were only a few decorations on the wall and a single plant, a tired geranium, nothing but a lone blossom on a weary stalk, as old and withered as Grandma Emmy herself.
A squirmy wiggle crawled into Tommy’s stomach, cold and slimy. He didn’t want to see his grandma like this. His face had become like a slab of metal, drawn by the glowing magnet in his hand, longing to look at the vibrant alive things there on the screen. But his mom nudged him closer to his grandma’s bed. He forced a vacant smile onto his cheeks.
“It’s so good to see you, my boy,” said his grandma. “I was hoping you would come today. I needed you to come today.” She reached out to pat his head and Tommy felt his gelled hair crunch under her bony fingers. “Oh my! But you have brought your helmet with you, haven’t you?”
His grandma laughed an old person’s laugh, full of marbles in the back of her throat. Tommy felt his ears go hot. His hair wasn’t meant to be petted like some dog’s. This carefully crafted work of art was meant to be admired at an acceptable distance - and to cover up his unfortunately large ears. But his grandma just chuckled away until her laugh drained into wet coughs.
“Mom, are you okay?” Tommy’s mom rushed to the bedside, offering the old woman a drink of water. After slurping a trembling sip, half of which poured down her chin like a toddler, Tommy’s grandma waved her distressed daughter away.
“I’m fine, I’m fine. Just old. Old and weak.”
Tommy caught his mom elbowing his dad in the ribs.
“Is there anything you need, Grandma Emmy? Anything at all?”
Tommy was sure his dad wanted to hide his face in an iPhone as much as Tommy did. But Tommy’s grandma smiled brightly, looking just a bit younger for a moment, like a spot of sun on a gray afternoon.
“Actually, Paul, there is something you can do for me. I have been aching for a slice of warm apple pie for weeks now, with a scoop of creamy ice cream right on the side. What passes for desert in this place is barbaric, you know. Tastes more like the box it came in than the desert itself. There’s a diner about ten miles down the road, I think. Perhaps you and Gloria could get some from there. Some for me and some for Tommy.”
“Apple pie?” said Tommy’s dad, arching one eyebrow high on his shiny forehead and crinkling his pinched nose. But Tommy’s mom grabbed his dad’s arm and pulled her husband to the door.
“Apple pie it is, mom. Right away. And some for Tommy too.”
“Alright, champ,” said Tommy’s dad to him. “Want to ride along?”
Tommy nearly leapt toward the doorway, his iPhone already rising to his face, when his mom and grandma shouted together: “No!”
“Tommy can just stay here with me for a while, if that’s okay. It’s been so long since we’ve been able to hang together, right Tommy? It’ll be fun.”
Tommy’s insides shriveled. He wasn’t sure which was worse, that his grandma had just suggested they “hang,” or that she thought it would fun. But Tommy saw by the look in his mom’s eyes there was no way out. He shoved his phone into his pocket as his parents bustled out of the room.
“So,” said his grandma, once they were alone, “how is school, Tommy?”
“Okay, I guess.”
“Okay? Don’t you have a favorite subject?”
Chaney Mulligan thought Tommy. But “I don’t know, social studies, I guess,” came out instead.
“I see. And are you involved in any clubs? Debate team, perhaps? Or any sports? Archery or fencing? I used to take archery you know.”
“Archery and fencing?” For a ghastly moment Tommy’s nose crinkled, and somehow he knew his face looked like his dad’s. “Grandma, we don’t even have a wrestling team at school. It’s too dangerous.”
“Oh yes,” said his grandma. “Yes, of course it is.”
She was looking old again. The brief glow of her brilliant smile had faded away. Death crawled over her body like frost on a window. That squirmy wiggle wormed its way back into Tommy’s stomach. His hand had gone to his pocket all on it’s own, digging between the folds for the warm rectangle there, the one that felt suddenly hot against his leg. The room had gone quiet, the air so heavy. Tommy’s grandma was just looking at him – looking so hard as if there was something she was thinking of saying but wasn’t sure she should – or wasn’t sure she could.
After a moment she reached for her water glass, swirling the trickle at the bottom of the cup three times. She watched the small tadpole of water as it made its revolutions, as though she were listening to it for some advice. “It would seem I’m out of ice, Tommy. Would you mind going across the hall to get me some from the machine?”
“Okay, Grandma.” Tommy couldn’t hide his joy at the prospect of fleeing the room for this menial task. His arm was quivering now. The iPhone was practically screaming from his pocket. Look at me! Look at me! He planned on making this the longest trip for ice in the history of ice, snatching the cup from his grandma’s frail hand and heading for the door. His grandma’s soft voice caught him from behind.
“Tommy, three things before you go.” Tommy stopped and looked back from the door. His grandma was sitting up in bed. Her eyes, green as the ivy that had crawled up the rough gray walls of her old house in the country, were quivering, fixed on Tommy’s face. Tommy thought, of all things, that she looked frightened. It was as though she had just realized that it was death creeping all over her body, reaching for her face to climb into her mouth.
“There are two children who like to visit their granddad down the hall. Their names are Nolan and Nora. If you see them, be nice to them. They are very friendly. Also, if you need any help along the way, you should ask Mr. Knight in room 117. He’s an old friend of mine from a long time ago. In fact I think he would very much like to meet you. And last, I brought your toy chest from the old house.” Grandma pointed to the foot of her bed, where indeed, the toy chest sat, lid closed. “It has your wooden sword in it, should you need it.”
Tommy stared back at his grandma for a long moment. He leaned his head out the door and stole a glance down the hall. The ice machine was six doors away, on the left, under a flickering fluorescent light. He could see it from where he stood. He leaned back in, forcing a smile on his face.
“Okay. Thanks, Grandma – will do.”
Tommy flashed his grandma a thumbs-up, striding out into the hall, thinking how awful it was to get old and senile.
The moment Tommy was out in the hallway his iPhone was out of his pocket. His thumb danced over the screen, checking for app updates, Candy Crush challenges, and Celebrity Watchdog alerts. But in the midst of all that, he noticed a text message waiting for him. It was from Chaney Mulligan.
Tommy froze in the hallway. An unsolicited text from Chaney? His heart began to thump. He opened the message.
Hi, Tommy, what’s up? Wish you were here.
Tommy almost screamed. He jumped up in the air, pumping his fist. Good times had just made a roaring return. But Tommy couldn’t overreact. He couldn’t rush his response. Part of being hot was also being cool. He wasn’t going to blow this once in a lifetime chance by texting back right away like an idiot. A little side trip into the bathroom would both buy him time away from grandma’s room and create a long enough pause before he texted Chaney.
When Tommy opened the door, something soft and warm brushed by his leg. It was a tabby cat, black and brown and gray, whisking by him into the bathroom. Tommy took a quick look both ways down the hallway, expecting some old person to come hobbling after their little pet in an excruciatingly slow canter. But the hallway was empty. Tommy shrugged his shoulders and followed the cat into the bathroom.
Tommy took stock of himself in the mirror. His perfect hair was all kinds of disheveled from his grandma’s weird head pat, and not nearly hot enough for texting Chaney. He set his phone on the corner of the sink and went to fixing his displaced locks. The tabby cat leapt up onto the sink beside him, cocking its head as it stared at him with one green and one blue eye.
“This could be it, cat,” said Tommy, admiring his handiwork in the mirror. It really wasn’t bad for not having any gel on him. “Me and Chaney Mulligan. I’ll text her back. Then we’ll probably play Candy Crush together. And that’s just the beginning.” Tommy was feeling very good about himself all of a sudden, good enough even to look forward to a slice of apple pie with his grandma. That was when he heard the cat laugh.
Tommy looked at the cat in the mirror, his hands frozen in his hair. The cat, it seemed, was smiling back. Tommy snapped his eyes from the mirror to the cat’s face. The smile had vanished and the cat was swatting in the air for some dust mote or fly that Tommy couldn’t see.
Slowly, Tommy went back to fixing his hair. That cat was weird. That old man who’d been yelling about being cooked in the sun was weird. This whole place was weird. Tommy hoped he could go home right after apple pie and wash all the weird off with a good shower. But, finally satisfied with his hair and also having thought of an appropriately cool reply to Chaney’s text, he reached down for his phone - and found nothing but porcelain sink.
Tommy glanced down, a cold chill spilling into his stomach. His phone was gone. He looked at the next sink over and found the tabby cat vanished as well. The bathroom door groaned. Tommy whipped his head around just in time to see the weirdest thing yet that day. The tabby cat was standing on its hind legs, having somehow managed the bathroom door open with one paw, waving at Tommy with the other. In its needle teeth it held the missing iPhone.
“Hey!” shouted Tommy. But before he had taken even a step, the cat winked its blue eye and vanished through the door.
Tommy tore into the hallway. His momentum slid him across the mopped tile floor and into the far wall. He caught the flicker of a gray tail curling around a corner, just past the ice machine. Tommy sprinted in pursuit, nearly bowling over a nurse carrying a metal tray of pill-laden paper cups. She dropped the tray with a tremendous clatter and snapped after Tommy with a furious, “excuse me, young man!”
But Tommy had no time for apologies or manners – Chaney Mulligan’s text had just been kidnapped by a cat. Once again Tommy caught a flash of furry tail twisting down another turn in the hallway. His tennis shoes squeaked on the tile as he gave chase. But his quarry ran on silent sock feet. The cat seemed to have the advantage of knowing its way through the labyrinth of virtually identical brown doors, fluorescent lit walls, and waxed white floors.
Finally Tommy rounded a corner into a hallway that that terminated in a door. His heart pounded. The prickling tingle of sweat needled his scalp and his forehead. The sound of his heavy breathing echoed off the walls. The cat was nowhere to be seen. Tommy shivered as he stood at the hallway’s mouth, perplexed. It was graveyard silent in this wing of the old-person’s home, absent the sounds of visiting families, television game shows, and enthused orderlies.
Something felt off about this hallway. It was cold, so much colder than any of the other hallways through which Tommy had run. It was darker and dingier as well. The walls and floors were gray from want of cleaning. The fluorescent bulbs sputtered in the ceiling, half of them gone purple at the ends of their electric lives. But worst of all was the door at the end of the hall. It was no warm and welcoming brown, like a freshly split tree from the forest. It was black as pitch, as though chiseled of stone spewed from a volcano. It was black as the coal eyes of the old man in the wheelchair.
Tommy took a deep breath. He was being stupid. He was being childish. What was it his dad had said to him one time? Not everything that happens in life is an adventure, son. That’s right, Tommy told himself. It was just a stupid cat that had run off with his phone, like any other thing a cat would run off with. The cat hadn’t laughed. It hadn’t smiled. It hadn’t winked. This hall was no different than any of the others.
Tommy steadied his hands and leaned toward the black door. But before he could take a step he was seized from behind. Someone grabbed at his elbows and yanked so hard he fell on his seat, just past the corner and out of view of the black door.
“What the hell?” Tommy’s voice erupted in a decent imitation of his dad’s. The only response he received was two hushes from two faces, their fingers jammed over their lips.
Tommy found himself staring into the eyes of two children, a girl and a boy. They were the oddest girl and boy Tommy had ever seen. For starters, even though Tommy was sitting and the kids were standing, he was eye to eye with them. They were the tiniest people he’d ever met. Stranger still, their skin and their hair were nearly all the same color, a sandy sort of brown, like sun-dried dirt or wood chips from a garden store. Tommy knew at once that these kids probably had their backpacks stolen or were knocked over in the halls of wherever they went to school. Probably daily. Tommy scooted away from them. They were weird, just like everything else in this place.
“What did you pull me down for?”
“Quiet!” said the boy. “They’ll hear you.”
“Don’t you know he wants you to come down there?” said the girl.
“Who’ll hear me?” Tommy screwed up his face. “Who wants me to come down there?”
“The hobgoblins will hear you,” whispered the boy, eyes wide.
“And you know who wants you to come down there.” The girl touched Tommy’s hand. The image of the old man in the wheelchair flashed in his mind, big black eyes, long claw fingers, pointy teeth poking from purple gums. Tommy jerked his hand away.
“This is so stupid,” he said, whispering for some reason and rubbing the back of his hand. “A dumb cat took my phone and I need to get it back. That’s all.”
“He knows how much you want your phone.” The girl turned her frightened eyes into a fairly effective glare. “Why do you think he had the cat take it? Why do you think he’s here?”
“Why do I think who’s here?”
“Mr. Dragoon.” The boy whispered the word that much more quietly. He was staring at Tommy, waiting it seemed, for the appropriate reaction. Tommy sat silent and still for a long beat. Then he slapped his hands to the sides of his cheeks.
“Oh no, not Mr. Dragoon!” he wailed, though he was still whispering and fighting to keep the thoughts of the old man from his mind. “Who the hell is Mr. Dragoon?”
“Mr. Dragoon is the Hobgoblin King,” said the girl. “The Hobgoblin’s have been multiplying over the years, hiding in sewers and attics and alleyways. Haven’t you been noticing how bad things have been getting? Haven’t you noticed how mean and crabby and spiteful people have gotten? It’s the hobgoblins. They needle and tease and hurt. But people don’t believe in them. Don’t know to blame them. So they blame each other. They fight each other instead of the real enemy.”
“They’re multiplying so fast because there aren’t many of their natural predators left.” The boy’s chin quivered. “That’s why Mr. Dragoon is here. He’s here to make sure there are no more predators left at all. Then there’ll be nothing to stop them.”
“Stop them from what? What does any of this have to do with my iPhone?”
“How can you not know?” said the boy.
“Queen Emmoria said he might not know,” the girl replied. “She said he might have forgotten.”
“Queen Emmoria? Grandma Emmy? Oh my god, this is the weirdest thing I have ever heard. It’s so weird, I can’t even tell Chaney Mulligan about it, because the weirdness would overcome her. There’s no such thing as hobgoblins. And my grandma is not a queen. Trust me. If she was, she’d be a lot cooler.”
“Your grandma is the last queen!” shouted the girl, leaning into Tommy’s face. “And you are the last prince. The last prince of the elves.”
“Elves?” Tommy had to laugh. He shook his head and gripped the bridge of his nose, just like his dad. “This is so crazy.”
“Yes, elves,” said the girl. “Can’t you tell when you look in the mirror every morning?” She reached up to pull the strands of Tommy’s hair away from his ears, but he slapped her hand aside with something akin to a karate block.
“Don’t mess with the hair, please. Now, this has been fun and all, but I’m going down the hall to get my phone, okay? So the two of you can have a nice life.”
“Wait, wait, wait!” The boy desperately clung to Tommy’s arm. “Let us at least show you first. Please!”
“It won’t take long,” said the girl. “Just back this way a few doors.”
Tommy sighed. “Will the two of you promise to go away after we look at nothing? I need to get my phone, text Chaney Mulligan, then get my grandma, the queen, some ice before I get the hell out of here.”
“Promise,” said the girl. But Tommy didn’t like the way she said it. She was a little too sure for his taste.
“My name’s Nolan,” said the boy, smiling as he walked beside Tommy. His head barely came up to Tommy’s waist. “That’s Nora, my sister.”
Nora wasn’t smiling. In fact, she wasn’t even looking back at Tommy. This really irritated Tommy as it was obvious, given at least his normal height, that he was the coolest of the three of them. If anything, he should be the one refusing to talk and look at her.
“Your sister has a total attitude,” said Tommy to Nolan.
“I do not have an attitude,” said Nora, still not looking back. “What I do have is a good memory. And I at least know who, and what, I am.”
“And what are you?”
“My brother and I are gnomes.”
“Gnomes?” Tommy was desperately thinking of someone at school who would listen to this story without judging him forever. “Does your dad work for Expedia? Where are your pointy red hats?“ Tommy was about to finish with his best impression of the traveling yard gnome when Nolan and Nora dragged him down to the floor across from a closet.
“Did you hear that?” Nora said to Nolan. Nolan nodded, cowering a little behind Tommy.
“Hear what?” Tommy was whispering again, in spite of how ridiculous all this had become.
“There, in that closet.” Nolan pointed over Tommy’s shoulder, barely raising himself high enough to see around Tommy’s neck. “In there.”
“What, a hobgoblin?” Tommy spun and raised up his hands like claws, making the boy flinch. He laughed to himself until Nora’s steely gaze stilled his chuckle. She was not amused.
“Well, then, if you’re so sure it’s nothing, go on and have a look.”
“Fine, I’ll look. Nothing’s gonna be there, anyway. Then I can be rid of you two freaks and get outta here.” Tommy got up to stride over to the door and throw it open, presumably on some stuffed animal or cleverly poised toy. But before he crossed the hall, Nora grabbed him hard by the wrist.
“Don’t just go throwing the closet door open,” she hissed. “Lean down and look through the vent. Do it quietly.”
“Right, okay.” Tommy gave her a knowing wink. He so wished he had his phone. Then he could video record this nightmare just to prove it really happened.
Sneaking across the hall, bemoaning the fact that he was going to look like a dullard to whichever nurse caught him in the weird kids’ imaginary game, Tommy knelt beside the door and peered through the vent. He was prepared to laugh. But he didn’t. A wave of nausea rolled through his stomach instead.
Two figures stood inside the closet. They were moving. In fact, they were also talking and laughing. They were definitely not toys. What shocked Tommy most was how hairy the two things were. He wouldn’t call them hobgoblins, not even in his head. Calling them by their names would only make them more real than they already appeared to be.
They stood about the height of terriers, walking on fetlock legs. They were covered in tufts of curly blue hair, which sprouted under their arms, on their legs, and down their backs. Their heads were almost perfectly round, with huge ears fanning out to the sides, black orbs for eyes, and lipless mouths inlaid with rows of needle-sharp teeth.
The two hob—- things, Tommy caught himself - were hard at work inside the closet, poking holes in the bottom of the mop bucket, pulling the Philips-head screwdrivers out of the tool kit, and cramming piles of dirt, hair, and filth into the drain. One of the two of them kept trying to keep the other quiet, but neither could stop the other from erupting in gurgling fits of laughter.
Tommy wanted to run away, but somehow he couldn’t tear his eyes off the little creatures - until one of their ears twitched. It started flicking in rhythm to Tommy’s heavy breathing. The little beasts spun on the door, glaring through the vent with black-on-black eyes.
Tommy scrambled back on all fours across the hallway to where the two gno—- weird kids were waiting. “What was that?” He was suddenly looking around frantically, like a person who’s just found a spider in his house and now suspected them to be everywhere. “What the hell were those things?”
“We told you.” Nora folded her woody arms across her chest. “They’re hobgoblins.”
“There’s no such thing as hobgoblins,” Tommy snapped. It didn’t matter what he’d just seen. He hadn’t just seen whatever he’d just seen. He couldn’t have. “It was dark in there. It could have been anything. Maybe it was just rats, or little weird cats, or something.”
“No.” Nora grabbed Tommy by the shirt and pulled his face close with surprising gumption. “They. Were. Hobgoblins. And you are an elf. They’re here to finish you and your grandma off for good. You have to do something about it.”
“You’re right, I have to do something.” Tommy was talking to himself as much as to the girl. He was sucking in deep breaths, trying not to hyperventilate. Why hadn’t he just stayed home? He could be lying on his bed right now, his phone plugged in, texting back and fourth with Chaney Mulligan for hours and hours. But instead he was here, with two freaky kids who were now freaking him out. “I know exactly what I need to do. I need to get my phone and I need to get out of here.”
Tommy knocked the girl’s hands from his shirt and climbed to his feet. He took a moment to steady himself against the wall and then marched down the hallway to the dingy corridor that ended in the black door. He was possessed by the notion that if he could just get back to his grandma’s room, he could tell his parents that he was feeling sick, which he most certainly was - how else could he explain the hallucinations - and they would take him back home. Then, after a long nap, everything would go back to normal.
“Wait, Tommy, wait!” Nolan clung to Tommy’s wrist with all his might, planting his feet in a vain effort to slow Tommy down. “Don’t go down there. You don’t have your sword. It’s going to be hard enough as it is. But without your sword, it’s going to be suicide.”
“My sword? My wooden toy sword? Are you kidding me? Even if everything you’ve said is true – which I don’t believe by the way – then that room with the black door belongs to an old geezer, with nasty teeth, and a bad comb-over, in a wheelchair. I’ll ask him for my phone, and if he doesn’t give it to me, I’ll just take it. He’s an old man. What’s he gonna do, lecture me?”
Nora skirted around in front, walking backwards and waving her arms. “Tommy, you don’t understand. The old man you saw is just a glamour – a disguise. Mr. Dragoon is the Hobgoblin King. He’s dangerous. He came here because he knew your grandma was old and weak and that you’d stopped believing in what you are. You’re not ready!”
But Tommy was no longer listening. He shook his hand free of Nolan’s grasp and brushed Nora aside with a sweep of his foot. He clenched his fists and threw his shoulders back, just like his dad did when it was time to get serious with some dumbass sales guy or pushy telesales people. Chaney Mulligan wanted to talk to him, he reminded himself. That was proof that he was cool. Cool people didn’t take shit from anybody.
Tommy practically ran into the dingy hallway, with its flickering lights and gray peeling floors. Why had he been so creeped out by it in the first place? It was just a hallway. The black door was just a door.
But whether he realized it or not, Tommy’s pace slowed. It was cold in the hallway. He hadn’t imagined that the first time. A shiver slid down his spine and prickled gooseflesh on his arms and legs. A cloud of steam billowed before his face. It was his breath. A patter of – no, they couldn’t be footsteps - rattled the ceiling panels above his head.
“We shouldn’t have come down here,” said a whisper behind Tommy. Nolan was still at Tommy’s heels, hugging himself with his skinny little arms, staring at the black door with big round eyes.
“There’s nothing to be scared of,” Tommy said. But he suddenly realized that was a lie. He was terrified. He could feel something in the cold – something alive - scratching at his skin, something cruel and dark.
Tommy took his first step backward when they broke through the ceiling. It was a pack of hobgoblins. They screeched and growled like rabid vermin. They dropped in a circle around Tommy and Nolan, hissing and snapping. One fell on Tommy’s back. Its horny feet dug into his skin. Its hairy, scaly body hugged the back of his head. It clawed the sides of his face with its long nails. Tommy screamed. But somehow he knew that the foul, cold air in the hallway swallowed up the sound. No one could hear him. No one would come to help.
Tommy thrashed and spun. He slapped at his head and shoulders. He was both horrified to touch the beast and desperate to throw it off. He finally managed to grab the hobgoblin on his back and hurled it the floor. Two more latched onto his arms and some half a dozen seized his legs. Sharp teeth and curved claws tore through his pants and punched into the soft skin on Tommy’s legs. The beasts pulled him down. The hallway floor was alive with hobgoblins, wall to wall, dropping by the dozens from the hole in the ceiling.
When Tommy hit the floor the hobgoblins surged onto his body. They hit him, kicked him, bit him, and clawed him. From the corner of his teary eye, Tommy saw Nolan hoisted up on the hobgoblin’s shoulders, carried away on a current of slashing claws toward the black door. The odd boy screamed and cried.
“Nolan!” Tommy reached out and by some miracle caught hold of Nolan’s tiny hand.
“Tommy, don’t let me go, please!”
It didn’t matter if Tommy let go or not. A hundred scaly hands were dragging his body down the hall as well. The black door opened like a mouth, swallowing gulp after gulp of Hobgoblins, slurping them down to get to Tommy and Nolan.
From behind the door, he appeared. It was Mr. Dragoon. He was no longer wheelchair bound. He was no longer frail or weak. His black eyes grew twice their size. His yellow skin waxed thicker and tougher, like wrinkled armor. His nails and his teeth became hard and sharp as knives.
“Hello, Tommy,” said the Hobgoblin King. “Can’t tell you how long I’ve been waiting for this. I’m going to cook you in a stew, boy. Then I’m going to eat your mom and grandma for desert.”
Tommy screamed again, kicking against the army dragging him to his death. But there were no handholds and the floor was growing slick with the blood from a hundred bites and cuts on Tommy’s arms and legs. Tommy was about to shut his eyes and try to wake himself up from this nightmare when a lone figure leapt onto his chest. It wasn’t another hobgoblin. It was a little girl, with woodchip skin and sandy hair.
“Nora!” Tommy shouted. “Help!”
Nora folded her hands before herself, as though she was praying. She spoke in words Tommy couldn’t understand. A flash of light, like a window shade snapped up in a darkened room, washed over the hall. Tommy fell to the floor from the hobgoblins’ grasp. Through the spots in his vision he found the hobgoblins were writhing in pain, hands clutched in fists over their eyes. Even the king had retreated back behind his door, the crook of one warty elbow thrown over his face.
Tommy scrambled to his feet, nearly falling again the moment he stood. His brains felt like they were sloshing around inside his skull. He could see a trail of red, like a mop dragged through spilled fruit-punch, running down the hallway. It was blood - his blood.
“Tommy, take Nolan.” A thin voice said to him through the haze. Nolan was lying on the ground at Tommy’s feet. Tommy leaned over and picked the boy up, starting toward the hallway’s end.
“You did it, Nora,” Tommy heard himself say. But he heard nothing back. At the corner, just before he could turn into the warmer air and brighter light, Tommy looked back. Nora swayed behind him, stumbling back and forth across the hallway. The magic – that is what it had been, hadn’t it? – had weakened her. “Come on, Nora, you can make it!”
But the Hobgoblins had recovered. They popped up to their blue feet - one, two, then a dozen at a time. Soon they were pouring down the hallway. Their king was back at his door, pointing with a long, yellow finger, teeth bared and spittle flying.
“Don’t let them escape! Drag them back here! Cut them! Bite them! Seize them!”
Tommy thought Nora was going to make it, he really did - until she stumbled a few feet from him. The hobgoblins caught her from behind and ripped her down. The last thing he heard her say, as she was lifted up and carried down the hall like a leaf on a stream, was “Run!”
Tommy ran as best he could. His head swam. Even little Nolan, tiny thing that he was, grew heavy as a cinder block in Tommy’s arms. The hobgoblins swarmed behind him. He wasn’t going to make it.
Another voice broke through the fog, then. It was an old voice, a voice like Tommy thought his granddad’s would sound, had the two ever met.
“Hurry lad. In here. Don’t look back.”
A door was open just down the hallway. Leaning out from behind it was a bent old man, the last traces of a proud beard in wisps on his chin. He was waving Tommy on with a gnarled hand.
Tommy didn’t have the strength to look back. He staggered the last few steps and then fell. Something caught him and once more Tommy felt himself pulled along. He wondered if it was the hobgoblins until he saw the room number on the door as all went black. It was room 117. Where had he heard that room number before?
“Ugh, what’s that smell?”
It was the stink that woke Tommy, burning his nostrils. He tried to open his eyes, but the light banged the inside of his head like a hammer.
“Easy there, son,” said a graveled voice. A gnarly touch rested on Tommy’s forehead, calloused and rough, like a tree branch in the shape of a hand. “You’ve had a busy afternoon, haven’t you?”
“I just came to visit my grandma. Mom and dad went to get apple pie.” Tommy’s throat was raw, as though he’d just come from a baseball game or a concert. Had he been yelling? “There was this cat. I think… I think it smiled at me. It took my phone.” The bizarre memories of the last couple of hours were slowly taking shape in the fog within Tommy’s head.
“There were things. Things in the closet. There was a black door and a man. Oh god, he’s horrible! He has her, he has the little girl!”
Even the brutal headache couldn’t keep Tommy’s eyes shut any longer. He blinked them open and sprung up from where he’d been lying, on a little couch inside a small room. A hundred bursts of pain lit the length of Tommy’s body, like a hundred shots deep into his muscles, jammed into him by a cruel doctor. Tommy leaned over the side of the couch and threw up. A trashcan was waiting for him. The light touch of the rough hand was on his back.
“Good, good, there you go,” said the voice. “Get it all out. That’s good.”
When Tommy finished puking, the owner of the voice handed him a cup of cool water. He gulped it down, followed by another. The old voice’s owner also draped a damp washcloth over the back of his neck. Slowly but surely, Tommy’s head began to clear. He found himself in a room nearly identical to his grandma’s – same bed, same couch, same sink. But the decorations were different. There was a painting of a man in armor pinning down a dragon with his boot, driving a spear towards its throat. And beside Tommy was not his grandma, but an old man with round spectacles and a scraggly white beard.
“You’re Mr. Knight, aren’t you?” Tommy remembered seeing Room 117 on the door before passing out. He remembered his grandma telling him that the man who lived there was a friend. Okay, Grandma, Tommy had said, like a know-it-all jackass. But what had he known? Hell, those two little weird kids knew more—
An invisible clamp seized Tommy by the chest, freezing the blood in his veins. The little girl, Nora, she’d saved him, hadn’t she? She’d warned him not to go down the hall, to the black door. She’d rescued him. Then he’d watched as the hobgoblins dragged her down the hall, back to him. Tommy found her brother, Nolan, lying in the bed across from the couch. His strange, tan skin was rucked and puckered from head to toe with semicircle bites and three-fingered slashes. Tommy winced, sucking in a hiss between his teeth.
“Is he going to die?” Tommy had never asked that about anyone in his life - not even his grandma. That invisible clamp squeezed his heart just a little harder.
“I think not,” said Mr. Knight. “You brought him here just in time. Gnomes are resilient creatures, fortunately. They are of the earth. And the earth has a track record of bouncing back from even the most horrible of wounds. Hobgoblin bites are mildly poisonous, like bees or wasps. A single one won’t do you in… but en mass? Fortunately, I still remember a few things from the old days, including this tincture.” The old man pointed to a Tupperware bowl on his nightstand, which was the source of the putrid stench. “It was originally meant as a balm for dragonfire burns, but I found its uses extended quite a ways further than that.”
“Dragonfire. Hobgoblins. Gnomes.” Tommy wondered if he was going crazy as he whispered each word. Were these things truly real?
“You forgot one, boy. A very important one. Elves.”
Mr. Knight stared into Tommy’s eyes. His gaze was heavy. Tommy reached up to the side of his head. His fingers brushed by cuts and gashes on his cheek to where his hair, once perfectly groomed, was slicked down and matted with his own sweat and blood. He touched at his big ears, at the little point on the top.
“Gnomes are made from the earth, but the elves came from the trees. That is their greatest power. At their touch, any green thing that grows becomes something more magical, more powerful. That’s why the Hobgoblins feared you and your wooden sword. Hobgoblins were born from the ashes of the first fires, which is to say, they were born from the seeds of destruction. That’s why they’re always breaking and hurting things. They are the seedlings of chaos. That is why they so fear the elves, who live to make things grow.”
“What about people?” asked Tommy. “I mean, what about humans?” He couldn’t believe he was referring to them as something else.
“Oh, we could go on and on about humans, Tommy. I am one, after all. We’re tragic things, human beings. Do you know what makes us tragic? We’re forgetters. We forget things. We forget what’s important. We forget what happens when we do the things we shouldn’t. We forget the lessons we learned as children. We forget what it is to be children at all. It was your human side that made you forget who you are, Tommy. It made you think the glorious things you did at your grandma’s house were only daydreams.”
A thick lump formed in back of Tommy’s throat. His nose stung and his eyes watered. Tommy had forgotten how much he used to love to go to his grandma’s house. He’d forgotten how much he used to love his grandma, giving her hugs and kisses just because. His grandma had known he had forgotten, hadn’t she? Tommy had caught it in the corner of her eyes. He might as well have punched her in the face.
“It’s my fault. I did forget. I didn’t listen. Now Mr. Dragoon is going to get my grandma. He’s already got Nora, all because of me.”
“Do you want to know something else about humans, Tommy?” said Mr. Knight. He reached over and tapped Tommy’s leg with his tree-bark fingers. Tommy looked back up from Nolan, startled to find that Mr. Knight’s eyes were blue as the sky, blue like a newborn baby’s. “We are forgetters, that is true. Especially when we’re at our worst. But on those days when we remember – oh, aren’t we a sight? Aren’t we a sight? You are part elf, Tommy, and a princeling at that, but you are also part man. A man who’s remembering. You’re not done yet!”
Tommy got up from the couch. His whole body ached. But the aching, like the harsh smell of Mr. Knight’s dragonfire tincture, wasn’t holding him down any more. It was waking him up.
“Will you look after Nolan for a while longer, Mr. Knight?”
“I sure will. And where are you off to?”
“I think I’m going to need my sword.”
Tommy marched through the corridors of Summer Glenn, light on his toes, on the lookout for hobgoblins. But they were all back at the Black Door, he imagined; back with their king.
An old man sliding out of his room on a tennis-ball mounted walker skidded to a stop and nearly fell over when he saw Tommy walk past.
“Well goddamn, son, did you step into a hornet’s nest or what?” The old man asked, gawking at Tommy’s bloody condition. Tommy said nothing. He was busy. “Well that boy is on a mission, I’ll tell you what!”
Yes I am, Tommy thought to himself. Yes I am.
Tommy burst into his grandma’s room. She was lying back on her pillows again, eyes half closed. Her skin was white as snow, so white it nearly glowed under the fluorescent light. It felt cold in the room. Tommy knew the Hobgoblin King’s darkness was filling the air throughout all of Summer Glenn, sapping his grandma’s strength.
“Did you get me the ice, Tommy boy?” asked his grandma. Her voice was less than a whisper.
“Gonna go get it right now, Grandma. Just have to take care of something first.”
Tommy knelt down before his old toy chest. He lifted the latch and threw back the lid. The smell of coffee and chocolate rushed up to meet his face, soothing the aches of his body, warming the chill air, and brightening the veins of remembrance now coursing through his mind. He pushed aside the other toys, digging down to the bottom of the box until he gripped a smooth, sanded handle. He pulled it from the box as he stood. The weight felt good. Though only carved oak, it seemed to Tommy to ring like steel. It sang with joy to be free and once more and back in the hand of its wielder.
Tommy stood at the end of the dim corridor. Its fluorescent bulbs still flickered. Its unnatural cold still crawled over the grey walls and dirty floor. At the far end, beckoning like a charred, ruined gate, waited the Black Door. Tommy squeezed the wooden sword in his hand and started down the hall.
Again his breath steamed. The icy air snipped at his flesh and needled the wounds on his arms and legs. The scratching of clawed toes scraped over the tiles above his head. The hobgoblins poured from the hole in the ceiling. But they quickly discovered, horrified shrieks on their lips, that this was not the same weak boy they had attacked before.
Tommy took two running steps before sliding on the tile, evading the hobgoblins aiming for his back and slipping past the holes in the ceiling. He popped back up and brought his sword to bear on the hairy blue devils.
It was strange, thought Tommy, swatting hobgoblins out of the air and sweeping them aside at his feet. His little wooden sword couldn’t have been any longer than a standard-issue school ruler. But as he swung and stabbed at his yelping, howling foes, the sword became less the small toy from his chest and more the fearsome blade he remembered. His body began to move less like a marginally active preteen and more like the warrior Tommy once imagined himself to be. He felt wild and invincible. He spun and slashed. He turned the hobgoblins back to the ash from which they were formed, forcing them to flee or face their doom.
Ash soon covered the floor. Tommy smelled victory on the air - until a creaking hinge groaned at his back. A winter wind, colder still than the chilly air in the hallway, howled and scattered the ash like sand on the beach. The Black Door had opened.
Mr. Dragoon stood in the doorway. By some trick of the eye, the craggy-skinned, sharp-toothed little man seemed ten feet tall. He bore Nora’s still form in his grasp, running a talon nail across her cheek, leaving a tattered pink scratch on her woody flesh. He extended his arm and unfurled his fingers. A swirl of black smoke blossomed from the Hobgoblin King’s palm, as though fresh from a famished flame. The foul fumes twisted into a shifting, roiling blade.
“There is no more place in the world for things that are green and grow, Tommy Woodson,” said the Hobgoblin King. “There is no place for those that grow them. The elves are finished. Humans have forgotten such things. It has become a world of fire, smoke, and burning. It has become a world for hobgoblins.”
“People can remember,” said Tommy. “People will remember. And there are still a few elves yet.”
Tommy charged the Hobgoblin King. He ran at him with the courage of a boy in the armor of a daydream. He did not fear for harming Nora with his wooden sword, for both she and it were of the earth.
But this was a dark king. When his smoky blade smashed into Tommy’s carved one, it threw him back. The wondrous cocoon of Tommy’s fantasies shook from the blow. He found himself ducking and dodging more than attacking. Mr. Dragoon continued to press his advantage – and Tommy found himself doubting.
The smoke from Mr. Dragoon’s blade spread in the room with every clash. The air grew black and lightless, like night with no moon and no stars. The pitch fog stung Tommy’s eyes and nose. It burned his throat and lungs, choking him like a fist clenched around his neck. At last, smelling blood in the water, Mr. Dragoon reared back with all his black might and brought his sword down like a hammer. Tommy just managed to raise a parry. But when the blow came, it cracked like a thunderclap and sent Tommy tumbling to the floor.
When Tommy tried to stand, he gawked at his wooden sword in dumbstruck defeat. The carved blade had snapped in half.
“At last! At last!” The King threw his head back and laughed. He brought his great round eyes back to Tommy’s face, smiling and running his purple tongue over his dagger teeth. “Let’s share this moment with your grandma, shall we?”
The Hobgoblin King kicked Tommy in the stomach with a clawed foot. He pulled back his sword and with a shout like stone dragging on stone stabbed the blade into his bedroom wall. The smoke sword blew a gaping hole in the drywall. The explosion torpedoed further and further, smashing holes in all the walls beyond Mr. Dragoon’s room. Tucking little Nora under his arm and seizing Tommy by the back of his shirt collar, the Hobgoblin King dragged Tommy through the holes. Old men and women shrieked and gasped, covering their mouths as the hideous creature ploughed through the freshly formed tunnel.
When Mr. Dragoon reached Grandma Emmy’s room, he tossed Tommy down in a heap and threw Nora beside him. Grandma Emmy was sitting up in her bed. Her skin was all but translucent. Her shoulders were slight and hunched. But nevertheless she stared with defiance at the Hobgoblin King.
“It is finally the end, Queen Emmoria,” said Mr. Dragoon, leering. “It is the end of the elves.” He dangled the black blade before her tired face, toying with her before the final stab. “You will die with the scent of the burning world in your nose.”
Tommy watched the dire scene hopelessly from the floor. His wooden sword was gone. Perhaps if he had not forgotten. Perhaps if he had remembered sooner. But he was nothing without the sword. He was just a little boy who lived his whole life through a four-inch screen. A little boy who didn’t actually know how to do anything.
Mr. Dragoon drew back his sword to strike. Grandma Emmy closed her eyes, embracing the end. Tommy looked away…
…and his eyes fell on the geranium.
It was a single faded blossom on the end of a drooping stalk. But it was green and it grew. With a little help, it could become something more.
Tommy leapt from the floor and dove for the nightstand. With great speed and great care he pulled the flower from its pot, roots and all. Where the green stalk and brown soil touched Tommy’s skin, there was a sharp pop, like the crackle of electricity.
The single blossom took a breath of life, fanning out and growing, deepening in color so vibrant it glowed. Sparks flew from the violet petals, spinning off and twirling in the air like fireflies and faeries. The blossom became a shield, and when it met the smoking blade, the black sword shattered upon it.
The Hobgoblin King’s face melted into a terrified mask, lips like a crying clown’s. “How can this be? How can this be?” The only answer Tommy gave was to rear back with the flourishing blossom and bring it down with all his might on the king’s yellow head.
An explosion of a thousand winged sparks and the smell of spring exploded in the room, blinding Tommy and throwing him against the wall. When he opened his eyes again, only a pile of ash remained where the Hobgoblin King once stood.
By the time Paul Woodson pulled into the drive at Summer Glenn, car thick with the aroma of baked apple pie, his mood had already darkened. The diner to which Grandma Emmy had referred him had been run by a couple nearly as old as Emmy herself. When the uncannily cheery pair said fresh apple pie, they must have meant they baked it from scratch on the spot. It took what seemed like hours to buy two slices and two scoops of ice cream. But Paul’s foul mood turned to stunned disbelief at the sight of flashing blue and red lights on the police cruisers, fire engines, and ambulances massed before the home.
The Woodsons rushed inside, wading through a sea of senior citizens, who were wrapped in shock blankets, pointing in every direction, all talking very, very loudly to the quizzical police, who were trying to gather at least some semblance of a narrative to what had transpired.
“There was an explosion, I mean, like a bomb! I was in Korea, son. Trust me, I know a bomb when I hear one. I was in the 101 in ‘56, and man, was I a lady killer back then. Me and the boys from my unit…”
“I swear there were all these little blue things running around. Lydia, what was that movie we saw that time, with the little teddy bear that turned into the lizards? Grumblings? Was it Grumblings?”
“I personally never had a problem with Dragoon, but he wasn’t very personable if you know what I’m saying. Had the worst case of halitosis, too. Have you ever tried to make conversation with someone who has halitosis? I met a politician with halitosis once. For life of me I kept thinking, how on earth did this fella get himself elected?”
Paul could tell that Gloria feared the worst because she was holding his hand, holding it very tightly. They so rarely held hands anymore. Her other hand was on her chest, over her heart. But when the two of them burst into Grandma Emmy’s room, they found Tommy and the old woman sitting together, talking and laughing, as though Tommy wasn’t covered in bites and scratches and ash, and there wasn’t a giant hole in the wall. In fact, thought Paul, Emmy looked ten years younger. And as for Tommy, he looked… well… he looked both younger and older at the same time, if that was even possible.
“Hey mom and dad,” Tommy said, hopping off the bed. He gave them both a big hug before pulling the brown paper bag from their arms. “You’re just in time. We were starving.” He took one aluminum tray of apple pie to Grandma Emmy, and the other to the little sofa, where the two most peculiar children Paul Woodson had ever seen were sitting. “This is Nora and Nolan, dad,” said Tommy.
“Tommy, what happened?” Gloria finally asked. She had rushed to Tommy’s side, checking the strange bites on his arms and legs as the boy gobbled up some pie, happily sharing it with his new, very tan friends.
“Oh nothing, really,” he said between bites. “Just a little fun. I’ll warn you though, Dad, it’s a bit of an adventure.” Tommy threw his dad a wink and a smile.
Standing there, his wife’s hand still in his, his son beaming and surrounded by new friends and a smiling, old woman, something tickled the back of Paul’s mind. It was a memory, a memory of laughing and running and leaping. For some reason a smile found its way onto Paul’s face. If he could have seen himself in a mirror just then, he, like Grandma Emmy, looked ten years younger.