Gender: Male Age: 29 Location: San Francisco.
|Introduction: What price to keep magic in the world?|
"Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand."
-WB Yeats, "The Stolen Child"
William didn't tell anyone that the baby spoke to him. Who would believe it? Instead he ran away. His parents would probably be angry with him, but what else could he do? Not stay, certainly, not with…whatever it was, still in the room.
The Mercers had lived in the apartment downstairs for years and had been trying to have a baby for as long as William or his parents could remember, so his mother insisted the whole family pay a congratulatory visit and see the new arrival. William hadn't much been interested, but going along was easier than arguing about it. He lingered over the crib while his parents and the Mercers chatted and laughed too loudly in the living room. He had never really watched a baby for any length of time before. It was kind of ugly, but he guessed newborns always were.
The little tyke (what was his name, Foster? What kind of name is that for a kid?) had been asleep most of the time, but now he opened his scrunched-up little eyes and looked at William. He gurgled and tried to wave his stubby arms, which William had to admit was pretty cute. Then something strange happened; the baby's expression changed.
Most of the time a newborn doesn't have any real expression at all unless it's smiling, crying, or about to cry. But something about the baby's face was different now. William could swear that the baby really was looking right at him and really seeing him and, somehow, he sensed that the child was thinking, considering, pondering, in a way that was utterly impossible for a child only a few days old.
He tried to tell himself it was all in his head and he was just about ready to believe it when, plain as day, the baby opened its mouth and spoke, in a voice that was strong and clear and nothing at all like the voice of a child.
"You have to go home, William," it said.
William's first instinct was to scream. Instead he stood there, paralyzed, and the baby watched him, its cold little eyes scrutinizing him with sagacity and even alacrity, and then it spoke again: "You have to go home, William," it repeated.
So William ran. He was sure that, if he called for his parents or the Mercers, the baby would not speak to them, for surely it had waited until they were alone on purpose? And what could he tell them? How could he explain? Even he didn't understand what had just happened. He ran from the apartment and from the building and all the way down 10th Avenue and into Golden Gate Park. He found a small playground, empty of children now in the early evening hours before dark, and he sat on a swing, kicking the dirt and wondering if this meant he was losing his mind.
The De Young (which his mother always called "That building that looks like a dung heap,") stuck up into the sky just over the hill. The shape of the observation tower made him think of that scene in that Disney movie where the mountain turns out to be a giant monster with its wings folded around it. A few feet away an underpass carved through the side of a hill formed a dark tunnel that he knew would open up into the concourse, with its fountains and plazas and bronze statues of famous dead people, although now, with the shadows growing longer around him and his head spinning from the bizarre thing that had just happened it was easy to imagine that the tunnel just went on forever, one long, black, endless passage to nowhere. He shuddered.
William thought about what happened and tried to decide what to do. He would never go back to the Mercer's again, of that he was certain. And he would never tell anyone what happened with the baby; not a soul, and especially not his parents. It would be the last straw, he thought to himself, they'd send me away forever. He knew what his parents thought of him. They never said it out loud, but he knew that they, like almost everyone else, whispered behind his back about how strange he was. It had always been that way. Growing up it hurt his feelings, but now at sixteen he spent a lot of time not thinking about it. It was never anything he did or said that rubbed people the wrong way, he just always seemed to make people uncomfortable, and he, in turn, was never comfortable around others.
His mother, almost forty weeks pregnant now after a decade and a half of trying to have a second child, would often smile at her friends and say, "We always wanted…another one." There was always a pause before "another one", as if she had to take a moment to remember she had one son already. It was not that his parents had ever showed him a lack of love, but it was the kind of love you might feel for a stranger rather than a child, for a distant relative of whom you have fond but vague recollections and with whom you occasionally correspond but never see. William often thought of it as the reflection of love. And now, if they knew he was going crazy, that he was having hallucinations? Well, it would probably be a relief to have some excuse to get him out of the way.
It was getting darker. He thought he should go home, but the dread of explaining to his parents why he'd run from the Mercer's apartment made his feet drag. The creaking of the swing set's chains seemed louder now, so he stopped moving. Maybe I can just stay here, he thought, just never move from this spot and become part of the landscape. He'd always liked the park. He imagined going and sitting at the feet of one of the concourse statues and, over days and weeks, slowly petrifying into a bronze figure just like it. Or maybe he could just wander off the path and into one of those thick glens of trees with the spidery limbs and keep walking and walking in it until it swallowed him up and he disappeared forever. It was not a pleasant thought. But it was not unpleasant either. It just was.
When there was just a sliver of light left in the sky William sighed, stuck his hands in his pockets, and got up to leave. Then something stopped him. At first he wasn't sure he'd seen anything move; shadows on top of other shadows made it hard to pick anything out. But then it moved again and he became sure that he wasn't alone, that there was someone lurking around the mouth of the underpass. He started a little, wondering how long whoever it was had been there, but he did not become scared or think to run until the stranger came into view.
The stranger was big, huge even, at least eight feet tall, so that he must have had to duck in the tunnel. His head was enormous, the size of a safe, and most of his face was taken up by a huge, bulbous nose and jaws that protruded almost into a snout. Two great, pointed teeth, like tusks, stuck out from the creature's rubbery bottom lip. A mane of shaggy brown hair tumbled down its head, and its bare arms and legs were covered with what looked short, thin fur. Its clothes looked to be mostly animal hides, loosely decorated with beads or shiny bits of rock that hung from tassels here and there. The creature's hands looked huge and strong, big enough to close over William's entire head. It wore no shoes, and its gigantic feet cracked the earth under it. But its eyes were small, out of proportion with the rest of it, just little flecks of green so bright that they showed up even in the dark.
William froze, his body suddenly soaked in cold sweat. And then, just when he thought that his day could become no stranger, the monster spoke. It said his name.
And again, William ran.
He got only a few steps before he saw that someone was there, on the other side of the playground, standing by the fence and staring. It's Nissa, he realized, and he opened his mouth to shout for her to run, but his throat seemed to have closed up. He dared a look back, expecting the monster to be right behind him, but instead he saw --
Nothing. The creature was gone. He gaped, astonished, and squinted against the dark, trying to see if the enormous silhouette was hiding in the mouth of the tunnel again. But there was nothing there.
He turned to Nissa. She lingered at the gate, her eyes gauging him. She did not seem frightened or surprised, only curious. He hesitated for a moment, unsure what to say, and then decided on "Hi."
"Hey," she said. "I was walking by and I saw you sitting here. Thought I'd say hello."
She didn't see it, he realized. If she saw me then she would have had to see it, but she didn't run away, and she's saying nothing about it now. She didn't see it. Another hallucination? He really was losing his mind.
"William?" Nissa said. She came a few steps closer, peering at him. "You okay?"
He opened his mouth to say, "Yeah," but instead he said, "No. Not at all." It often happened that way. He always had trouble lying to Nissa. She was a year older than him and in the apartment right above his. Her bedroom was even right over his, he knew, though he had never seen it. She had a big family, a father and four younger brothers, but he rarely saw any of the rest of them. Her father, William knew, lived off of disability and drank too much, though he never seemed to shout or hurt the kids at all, mostly just sat and drank beer after beer all day long. Nissa minded the kids, so it was unusual to see her out of the apartment alone, though she often stopped and knocked on his door while going upstairs, to say hello and have small conversations about nothing before moving on. She never went to school, as far as William could tell.
She nodded her head to one side, gesturing. "I'm going to hang out in the concourse for a while, want to come?" she said.
"You hang out in the park at night?" said William. "Isn't that dangerous?"
Nissa shrugged. "It's one of the only times I get to leave the house. Dad is passed out, the little ones are asleep, and the older kids can watch TV for an hour before bed on their own without burning the place down."
William hesitated. He was afraid of going through the underpass, imagining brushing up against some huge, hulking shape in the dark. But then he thought about Nissa going in alone, with no idea what was waiting there. And besides, he really did want to spend time with her, just the two of them…
He held his breath as they entered the tunnel. He wanted to take Nissa's hand, but instead he shoved his hands in his pockets. He waited for something to emerge and block the bare illumination at the tunnel opening, but nothing came. They passed into the concourse and William looked behind him, wondering again if there had ever been anything there at all.
He turned to say something to Nissa, but blinked when he found she was gone. Panicked, he swiveled left and right, searching, and then he saw her, clear on the other side of the plaza. How had she gotten so far ahead of him? And where was she going?
He ran to catch up, past the empty fountains and the blank-eyed statues of Beethoven and Father Serra. So many statues. When he was a kid he used to imagine that they came alive at night and had long talks about whether they should keep staying in the park or all just leave, but they could never all agree, so they all ended up staying by default. A bronze gladiator holding a dagger reared up over its pedestal in front of the Academy of Science, opposite the De Young, and Nissa waited at its foot. She gestured for him to follow her, and William caught a flash of her smiling white teeth in the gloom as she ran off.
It was some time before he caught up with her again. She was waiting at a place where a low wall and elaborate gate sat by the side of one the park's many winding roads. William had to think for a minute to realize where they were: the Shakespeare Garden. It was a simple, pretty little space, mostly used for weddings. A bust of Shakespeare sat at one end, and a few plaques with quotes from plays decorated the place. It was too dark to read them, but Nissa seemed to know the quotations by heart, and she whispered the words to him as they stood side by side in the dark. He didn't really understand what any of them meant, but the feeling of her warm breath on his ear was pleasant. The last spot was empty, and it seemed someone had pried the plaque off the wall some time ago. The vandalism made William angry, but Nissa knew the quote anyway:
"As imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name."
William did not understand, but he did understand that Nissa was standing very, very close to him, and even though it was almost pitch black now and he could not see her face all he would have to do is lean forward a few inches and her lips would be touching his…
"What happened to you today, William?" Nissa said. William blinked, and the spell of the moment was broken. He shuffled his feet in the dirt and looked away.
"What do you mean?"
"I asked you if you were okay and you said no. And you looked scared when I met you. So I thought something might be wrong."
William scratched the back of his head and shuffled his feet again, wondering what to say. He could not --would not-- lie to Nissa of all people, but he couldn’t very well tell her the truth either. He felt dizzy and disoriented; why had she brought him here? He'd thought for a second he knew why, thought it might even be the amazing, exhilarating reason he dared to dream about in quiet, private moments in his bed, late at night, but now he wasn't sure.
"Have you ever had a day where you weren't sure what was really happening?" he said.
Nissa paused for only half a second. "Oh sure," she said. "All the time. I call those weekdays. Also, weekends."
William wasn't sure if she was joking with him or making fun of him. In the dark her face was a big black spot, so it was impossible to read her expression. Maybe he shouldn't have said anything at all? In fact, what was he even doing out here? It was the middle of the night, and his parents would be worried sick.
"William," Nissa said, "do you ever --"
"I have to go," he said, backing away. For a second he thought he felt her fingertips brush his, as if she'd reached for his hand in the moment he started to leave.
"Yeah. It's late. My mom and dad will be looking for me."
"Okay," she said. Her tone was, as usual, impossible to decipher. "William," she said as he left, "do you think we --"
But he was already gone. At first he just walked swiftly, but soon he was running. His feet slapped the hard earth over and over again, and the echoes seemed like a second set of footsteps, following right on his heels, an invisible pursuer that went everywhere with him and lived in the space just over his shoulder, as he ran, crying and alone and afraid.
It was late. William was in bed, thinking. The bedside lamp was on and he was supposed to be reading, but the book lay open on his lap, unseen. His parents were already asleep when he got home, which surprised him, and there was no note for him, which surprised him even more. Now he lay awake and looked at the ceiling. He guessed Nissa must be there, right over his head in the little apartment she lived in with five other people. Was she thinking about him too? He wished now he had not run from her. Had he hurt her feelings? He rolled over in the bed and pictured the scene again. They were in the garden, they were all alone, her hand was reaching out for his, he leaned in toward her lips and --
But no. He stopped himself there. Even in his fantasies he never dared dream of being kissed. It seemed like too much to hope for. Instead he pictured Nissa pushing him up against the brick wall and tugging his belt off, sliding his pants down his legs. He always felt guilty thinking about her this way, but it almost seemed like he had no choice. He tried to imagine what her hands would feel like on his naked skin, or her lips, or her hair. These things were totally foreign to him, but he could guess, at least. He imagined running his fingers through her hair, and the sting of the evening air on his exposed body as she pulled his pants down lower and reached into the flap of his underwear. Would her hands be cold, he wondered? Would his body warm them up?
He reached for his cock and held it the way he guessed she would. He was even careful to use his left hand; she was left handed, and so was he, the only left-handed person in his family. For some reason it pleased him when he learned they had this in common. What would she do, he wondered, what would she say? He knew what the women in those movies on the internet did and said, but he couldn't imagine Nissa would be that way. Unless of course she watched the same movies? The thought sent a surge through his body, and he closed his eyes, trying to picture all of the details that he could, from the feeling of the rough brick against his back and shoulders to the brush of her blouse against his naked thighs, the slippery feeling of her lip gloss as she put her mouth against him (he was particularly proud of thinking of the lip gloss), and the delicious tension as she ran the tip of her tongue around and around the head of his --
He could barely even think the word "cock".
He thought about how her mouth would feel; warm and wet, obviously, and soft, but what about her tongue? How would it move? How would he feel when it did? How hard would she actually suck? And what would she look like? Would her eyes be open or closed? He pictured himself brushing the hair back off of her forehead; this seemed like an important gesture, because it would show that he was not just thinking about himself in that moment. He imagined himself moving, pushing with his hips, but then he stopped, because it seemed obscene, somehow, to do that to Nissa.
But not if she wanted him to; what if she reached up and grabbed him? What if she actually pulled him in? What if she wanted it? What if she wanted him, really, really wanted him? Was that possible? What would that feel like? It was too good; it was too much to think about. Did she want him the way he wanted her? Did she feel what he was feeling right now? Did her pussy get wet ("pussy" was a word he could imagine, particularly in regards to Nissa) dreaming about him?
Maybe he had it all wrong, maybe they should be the other way around. Maybe he should have her lie down on the soft grass in the garden and pull her panties down and put his mouth and tongue between them, then lick her until she was wet. Would she moan the way the women did in the movies? Would she say his name? He wanted that acknowledgement. He wanted to feel those things happen to her and know that it was him doing it, and more importantly, to know that she knew that it was him. And he wanted her to want him to come inside her, to hold her against him and slide his, his -- into her wet pussy, and, oh God, he wanted to fuck --
His train of thought came crashing to a halt the same way it always did, with a spasm that run through his body, a feeling of explosive release, like a firework going off, and then a mess that had to be cleaned up. He blushed, quietly ashamed. The aftermath of his fantasies always seemed curiously inadequate to him. In the first few seconds after he always pictured Nissa's disgust if she could see him like this. It always went away fast, though. He sighed. Sex was a like a foreign country to him. He knew all about it, but it was hard to imagine that it was real. Was that really something people did? Did the people he know really do that? Did they enjoy it? It was baffling to think about. His virginity made him feel inadequate, like he was only half a person, cut off from the wider world.
William stood and, feeling sheepish despite being alone, went to the hamper and found a pair of discarded briefs to wipe himself off with. When he finished he went to open the window and cool off, but when he pulled up the blinds he fell over and scampered away. There, in the window, as if waiting for him, was the monster from the park, and now there was another one with it. The new creature looked very like the first, but was somewhat shorter and had finer features, and the hair that covered its body had soft gold highlights. William thought it might be a female. The pair were so big that only their heads and the tops of their shoulders were visible through the window frame. How are they even looking in, thought William, we're on the fourth floor!
The male creature, the one William saw in the park, spoke: "Hello William," it said.
"Bah-uh-buh-wha --?" said William.
"Hello William" said the female creature; her voice was somewhat gravelly. "Can we come in?"
This was too much. He jumped up and ran for the door, but stopped himself. He was sure the monsters would be gone by the time he brought anyone else in. And besides, was this even really happening? He still couldn't be sure. He pressed his face against the cool wood of the door, feeling the texture of the paint, reassured by the tangibility of something solid against his skin. Just take a deep breath, he told himself, and the world will start making sense again soon. I hope.
"It's all right, William," said the male creature. "I'm sorry I frightened you today."
"We wouldn't hurt you," said the woman. "We just want to talk."
William swallowed. "Okay," he said. "Talk."
They paused. "It would be easier if you would let us in…" said the male. William wondered why they didn't just break in; they could fit through the window if they squeezed? Did they need to be invited in first, like vampires? Or maybe, he thought, they just don't want to scare me anymore than they already have…
He turned to face the window again, but shook his head and stayed on the opposite side of the room. "No," was all he said.
"Please William," said the male. "We need your help."
William almost laughed; what could they possibly need from him? Other than to be let in, and that sure as hell wasn't happening.
"We're desperate," said the woman, and William was surprised to hear her voice tremble. It almost looked like she had tears in her eyes.
"Find someone else to help you," William said. "Just go away and leave me alone."
"We can't do that," the woman said. "We need you, William."
"For what?" William said, almost shouting. He didn’t wait for an answer but instead dashed across the room, seized the blinds, and pulled them down again, blocking the monster's faces. A ridiculous gesture, but it was all he could do.
"We need your help," said the male creature, his voice so soft it was barely audible over the wind, "to get our son back."
And then they were gone.
William woke up the next morning and looked at the window in a panic, but of course there was nothing there. The blinds were up again, somehow, but there was nothing out there to see except morning sun and the face of the building across the street. He rubbed his eyes, wondering if it had all been a dream. Maybe everything was a dream, he thought; the baby, the park, even Nissa. He paused at the thought of Nissa. Had their meeting been real? It seemed like it at the time, and yet it was all so strange now.
He went out to breakfast and only when he sat down did the feeling of dread come back over him. He'd forgotten all about running away without explanation the other day and how his parents had still not confronted him about it. But to his surprise, his mother only gave him a thin smile, and his father, busy in the kitchen, seemed downright cheerful. Neither mentioned his behavior at the Mercer's.
They ate in silence; which is to say, William's parents were silent to him. Conversation between the two of them was lively enough, with talk about the Mercer's baby, and about work, and about William's aunt's upcoming fiftieth birthday, and as always talk about the new baby. William's mother was so big now that she barely fit at the table, and she rested her hands on her swollen belly always, feeling for movement within. He thought about how strange an unborn baby is; half in the world, half out of it.
William kept quiet except to excuse himself, and then he went to his room to think. It was Saturday and he was free to do whatever he wanted. He thought about going upstairs to see Nissa. He did not stop by her place very often, if for no other reason than to avoid her father's sad, disturbing eyes, but he wanted to see if she remembered their encounter from the previous night. And he just wanted to see her in general. But of course, he was also afraid to, for all the same reasons.
Instead he decided to go to the library. It was partly an excuse to get out of the house, but he had a particular book in mind that he wanted to look up, if it was still there? He told his parents he was going out, and his mother stopped to kiss him on the cheek; she had only ever kissed him on the cheek or the forehead his entire life, as far as William could remember. He took the bus to the Western Addition branch and, feeling a bit sheepish about it, went to the children's section. He was lucky enough that the book was still there after all these years, the book he remembered liking so much as a child, and he sat down with it in a quiet corner.
Inside were vivid illustrations of fairy tale creatures; wizened gnomes and shy, knowing fairies, and one image that had particularly frightened his as a child of a huge, lantern-jawed ogre roasting meat over a fire. He paused at the ogre illustration, but it was not quite right. Finally, on the next page, he found what he was looking for, a painting of a beautiful woman sitting on a tree stump. Surrounding her were a group of huge, shaggy creatures with long faces and enormous noses, three who seemed to be men and one who was a stooped old-woman monster. It was called, "The Princess and the Trolls", and the caption read:
"Look at them, troll mother said. Look at my sons! You won't find more beautiful trolls on this side of the moon."
Troll. He turned the word over and over in his mind. It seemed right, somehow. The illustration certainly looked like the monsters from the park and from his window last night. They were almost identical, in fact. But were there really such things as trolls? It seemed absurd, and yet it in an odd way it also made sense.
He turned the page and there was another troll illustration, this one of a woodcutter who seemed to have just freed a troll from under a fallen tree. The caption said:
"And in return the trolls promised not to trouble his family evermore, and to take no changeling from his descendants."
The word "changeling" rang a faint remembrance in William's mind. He put the picture book back in the kid's section, then browsed the other shelves until he found a book on Irish folk stories. Looking up "changeling" in the index, he found the relevant page:
"There is particularly pronounced belief among the laboring classes that children are vulnerable to abduction by fairies in the first few weeks of life. Supposedly the sidhe creatures will steal a child out of its crib and replace it with one of their own, a 'changeling', a fairy who will pose as the stolen child for some time before seeming to die (but in fact simply returning back to its own fairy family). Changeling stories are probably a cultural device to account for handicaps, mental retardation, or sudden and unexplained infant death."
William pondered what he'd read. The trolls said they wanted his help getting their son back, were they talking about the Mercer baby? The changeling book was about fairies, but maybe trolls and fairies were the same thing? Had the trolls stolen the real Mercer baby and left a changeling in its place? Why would they come to him for help getting it back? Because the baby spoke to him, of course, but why him in the first place?
William returned the books and took the bus home. His research made him feel better, somehow. At least now he had a name for what was happening, and some information that almost made sense. He was now more confident that the creatures (trolls?) were real. He considered going for a walk in the park and seeing if he encountered them again, but decided there was no need. They knew where to find him, after all, if they wanted to talk more. So he waited.
They came back that night. William went to the window and even opened it, confident that if they wanted to hurt him they'd had plenty of opportunities already. The fog was hovering low tonight and it drifted, cold and wet, into his room. "What do you want?" he said.
"Your help," said the troll mother.
"Our son --" said the troll father, but William cut him off.
"You took the Mercer's baby, didn't you?"
The creatures assumed pained expressions.
"You don't understand," said the troll father. "Our son is --"
"Downstairs in the Mercer's apartment, right? And you need me to do something so you can go and get him back. But what about the Mercer's real son? Why did you take him?"
"It's the way of things," said the troll father. "It's how we get by. There are so few of us left anymore, and it's so hard for us to have children."
William's mouth hardened into a line. "How is that the Mercer's problem? How is it mine?"
"It's so easy for humans," said the troll mother. Bitterness filled her voice. "They could just have another baby without even trying. Not like us."
"Please," said the troll father. William saw tears running down his monstrous face. "My son. I can't leave him here. You must understand that?"
William crossed his arms. "I guess," he said. "But I won't do anything to help you. Not unless you bring the real baby back."
"That's impossible," said the troll father. "You don't even know how impossible the thing you're asking is."
William thought about what it would be like growing up among monsters, always knowing that you're different but never knowing where you come from or what happened to you, never knowing that somewhere out there were people who loved you and never forgot about you.
"Yeah?" he said. "Well, neither do you." And he turned his back on them. When he turned back a moment later they were gone. He shivered and rubbed his bare arms, then went to close the window. Just before he did, he heard it; the sound of a creaky old window sliding shut and latching right over his head. He paused; was that Nissa? Her bedroom, he knew, was right above his. Had her window been open? Had she heard everything?
William bit his lip. He wanted to run upstairs, pound on her door, and ask her everything right then and there, but he forced himself to lie down. He stared at the ceiling and imagined Nissa lying in bed right over him. He turned to his side and scooted over, leaving one half of the bed empty. He imagined she might be lying on the other side of her own bed right over him, so that it would almost be like they were sleeping side by side. In the night, in his sleep, one of his hands dangled off the bed, and the other reached out for her.
It was Sunday. His parents had church on Sundays, though for reasons he was never entirely clear on they'd never brought him along or even suggested he accompany them. William didn't mind. He figured there might as well be some upside to their disinterest in him.
He watched his mother smooth the fabric of the one and only good dress she had that still fit. His father kissed her and then turned to William, apparently about to say something, but his words faltered. He ended up just patting William on the shoulder and giving him half a smile. William knew what it meant: Have a good day, we'll be back soon.
He waited for them to leave the building, the slapped on his shoes, fumbled his keys in the door lock, and vaulted up the stairs two at a time. It was a lucky break that they'd left him alone; he neither wanted to lie to them nor tell him where he was going. He hesitated before the Nissa's apartment, staring into the faded grain and peeling paint on the old door as if hypnotized before knocking twice. He was afraid her father might answer but instead Nissa herself opened the door, and his heart fluttered. She was obviously surprised to see him but not, he noted with some satisfaction, displeased.
"Hey," he said, and they paused for a moment, both unsure of what to do. Then he said, "Can I come in?" and she opened the door for him. It was abnormally dark inside, as it always was the few times he was here, and it showed the marks of someone trying hard to keep the place clean but never quite being ahead of the curve. From somewhere further in he heard the sounds of a TV, but they were faint.
Nissa locked the door and took William by the hand. Down boy, he told himself. "Come on," she said, pulling him down the hall, "let's talk in my room."
William tripped. "Wait, what will your dad say?"
"He's not here," said Nissa. "He took the kids out for the day."
"Huh?" said William. He couldn't remember Nissa's dad ever stepping foot outside the house -- or even the living room.
"I know, right?" Nissa said, smiling. "It surprised me too. He said he felt bad about how I had to do all the work around here. I mean, he says that all the time, and I'm sure he really means it, but this is the first time he's ever done anything. He said I should just relax while everyone is out. I don't think I even know how!"
When they got to her room she flopped down on the bed while William stood half-in and half-out of the doorway, hands in his pockets. He had never seen Nissa's room (or any girl's room) before; it was curiously bare, with little furniture and virtually no decoration. He guessed she didn't really spend much time in here. Half the walls were a different color, suggesting a project that had been abandoned. The window was open, and it jogged his memory about why he was here. He realized Nissa was talking, had been talking the whole time, but he had no idea what she was saying.
"…which was SO amazing, but of course I could only be there for half of it because I had to be home to make dinner for Taylor and Kevin and then drive Colin to soccer practice and --"
William cleared his throat and tried to talk but all that came out was a croak. He blushed, but she didn't laugh, instead assuming a thoughtful expression and waiting for him to speak. He swallowed hard and tried again. "I wanted to talk to you because…some weird things have been happening to me lately."
Her face became more serious.
"I've been seeing things, and hearing things, and…last night, did you have your window open?"
She nodded and paled noticeably.
"Did you," he looked at a corner of the room for no reason, "hear anything? Anything strange? Anything from, ya know…my room?"
When he looked back he was shocked to see tears prick Nissa's eyes. She put a hand over her mouth and nodded, and then she said, "I've seen them too. They come to my window at night. Oh God, I thought it was just me, I thought I was losing my mind!"
She broke down completely and began sobbing into her hands. Without thinking about what he was doing, William sat down and put an arm around her. She leaned into him and cried on his shirt for a while. When she could talk again she looked up at him, red-eyed. "I thought I was alone," she said. "I thought I was the only one."
"Me too," said William. Taking a deep breath, he told her everything that'd happened since that night in the Mercer's apartment.
"I had no idea about the Mercer's baby," Nissa said. "I just knew they kept asking me to help them with their son. I can't believe they'd really do that. I mean, they seemed…nice, in a way."
"They're monsters," said William.
"They're a family," said Nissa. "I mean, they scare me, and I don't want to help them, but have you seen the way the father looks when he talks about his son? Have you heard the mother cry?"
William's heart hardened. "All the more reason they shouldn’t be hurting other people's families," he said.
Nissa nodded. "Of course you're right," she said. "I just don't know what to do. I've been so scared."
"Me too," William said. He was suddenly aware that her body was pressed up against his. He felt the curved side of her right breast through her shirt. His heart jumped. "At least we're together now," he said. "I mean, we're in this together."
Nissa smiled. "You and me?" she said. William nodded. "I like that idea," she said. And then she kissed him.
William had a heart attack. He was sure he must be having a heart attack. What else could that feeling be? Oh God, he thought, please don’t faint, whatever you do, please, absolutely do not faint. He struggled to hold on. It was a second before his head cleared enough to realize he was kissing her back. As far as he could tell, he had not died, and she was not reacting with horror, revulsion, or any kind of homicidal urge. So far, this was exceeding even his wildest expectations.
So he kissed her again, and again, and again, and he did not stop her when she went to close the door. He shut his eyes and ran his hands over the sheets and covers of the bed (Nissa's bed!), trying to record all the little details of the moment, as if this experience might have to last him for a lifetime. Which, for all he knew, it would.
She sat on his lap. He jumped and was not quite sure how to sit. She turned his face up to hers and kissed him one more time, which helped him relax a bit. Then she said, "I like you William." His mouth went too dry to talk. "I like you because you're a nice boy. You know that, right?" William blushed. Then Nissa leaned in and whispered in his ear: "But I don't want you to be nice right now. It's okay to be bad. I want you to. You have my permission. Do you understand?"
He froze; what the hell do you say to a thing like that? Then she bit his ear, hard. He grabbed her by the hair and kissed her neck, his mouth open, his teeth brushing her bare skin. And he couldn't believe it; she moaned! She actually moaned, for real. So he did it again, and she did it again, and soon he felt the pressure rising from down below. Nissa rearranged herself on his lap to accommodate the growing obstruction, and she giggled. So did he, but somehow it was all right. .
Somehow or another (and he never was able to recall precisely when this happened), her shirt came off. William had never been anywhere in proximity to naked female breasts (his mother often made a point of the fact that he was a bottle-fed baby, though he was not really sure why it evenr came up). He felt like he'd suddenly stumbled onto an actual pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Initially he froze, but when he remembered what Nissa just said he snapped out of it. Though his fingers trembled he wrapped his hands around them and squeezed; they did not feel at all like he expected. Somehow he had always imagined a kind of plasticity to them, though now that seemed immediately foolish. Nissa gasped, but then she winced. "Too hard!" she said. William panicked and almost let go, but at the last second he simply eased off. Nissa purred. "That's better," she said. William licked one and she moaned and began rocking back and forth against him. She felt hot all over. So did he.
The minutes that followed were characterized by a kind of blind, tentative, chaotic exploration. William's senses went into overdrive, sights and sounds and scents overlapping with each other, blurring, mixing and overflowing. For a while one particular thing would swim to the forefront, like the taste of hot skin under his lips or the embarrassed but comfortable laughter when a garment gets caught on something in the process of being removed. There was a period of time (he couldn't tell how long) when he only watched the pupils of Nissa's eyes as they expanded and retracted in response to some stimulation or another, and another when he was rapt by the soft pliability of her lips as they opened, closed, twitched, smiled, and formed themselves perfectly, sensually, to each letter of each word. And sometimes it was just the words themselves: "That feels good. Oh God, that feels good. William. William. Oh God, William…oh God, William…oh God!"
William struggled to focus his thoughts. Now that he was certain this was really going to happen, he had to think. Was this her first time too? It didn't seem like it, but he was hardly qualified to tell. If it was her first time, he knew there would probably be a little blood. The thought made him queasy. He was not really sure what the…barrier in question actually looked like. He preferred if someone else had already taken care of it, truth be known. He tried to think of a polite way to ask, but -- Oh my God, he thought, her mouth is on my --!
At one point he somehow found himself standing behind her as she bent over the bed, grabbing the headboard and pushing back against him. His -ahem- was pressed between the cheeks of her ass, and she seemed to like when he rubbed it up and down. He watched the side of one cheek quiver with the impact of his body. It was almost hypnotic. Would she like it if he spanked her? He had no idea. She might get angry…but then, she might not. How could he tell? He guessed he could just ask, but what do you say to a thing like that? He watched her head thrash back and forth as she moaned more and more. Then he remembered what she'd said about wanting him to be bad. Well, what the hell, he thought. He swatted his hand against her backside and clenched his jaw, waiting for her to react.
"Ohhh, fuck, yes!" she said.
All right, that was good enough for him. He did it again. "Mmph, fuck!" And again. "Fuck!" She pushed back against him as hard as she could. William didn't think he'd ever heard her use that word before. In fact, had he ever even used that word? In his mind, surely, but out loud? He couldn't remember. Then Nissa reached down between her own legs, circling her fingers around his testicles and glancing against his erection, which she guided down, and he realized, gradually, that when Nissa said it it was not just an exclamation. It was instructions.
Wait, he realized, do I have a condom? He usually carried one in his wallet out of a sense of doomed optimism, but he'd forgotten his wallet at home and hadn't bothered going back for it, since he wasn't planning on leaving the building. Now what? Again he tried to speak and again it seemed he could not, but Nissa seemed to know what he was thinking anyway, and she handed him one from her nearby purse. The idea that she'd always had one with her every time he saw her made him more excited. His fingers shook as he slipped it on. He was afraid he might rip it, but finally he got it. Nissa actually wiggled her ass back and forth in front of him, smiling over her shoulder. William reminded himself for the hundredth time that this was really happening, then squared his shoulders, took a deep breath, checked his resolve, and then pushed in…
"No, that's not quite it," she said. William blushed.
"Sorry," he said. "It's hard to tell with the, you know, on…"
"Hang on, I'll help."
"That's not quite --"
"There, try it there," she said.
"Are you sure?" And then he pushed again and felt something warm and wet. His whole body tensed up and then, one inch at a time, untensed, as a wave of relief washed over him from one end to the other. He tested the feeling with one or two tentative movements, then dared to make a hard, heavy one, pushing all in. He worried he might overdo it and hurt her again, but it didn't seem to be a problem. In fact, he felt her go even wetter around him, the dampness evident even through the barrier of the latex.
"Ohhh God…" Nissa said.
"Mmmm," was all William could say. But that was okay. She was vocal enough for both of them. As he found out over, and over, and over again.
After, Nissa lied in bed, sheets tangled up around her, dozing a little. William watched her. He was suddenly very aware of his nakedness again. "I should go," he said. She put a hand on his arm.
"Please stay a while," she said.
"Your father could come back."
"Not for hours," Nissa said.
"If you're sure?"
William didn't understand why she was so confident, given how long her family had already been gone and how rarely her father ever left the house for even twenty minutes, but at the same time he did not really want to leave any more than she wanted him to go. So he stayed. She was asleep again soon, and he watched her. She had a ponderous expression about her while she dreamed. It reminded him of the Mercer's baby, in an odd way. William sat back and thought about what had just happened. I really did it, he thought. Finally. How did he feel now? Was he different? It was hard to tell. He tried to close his eyes and just ponder his body for a little while, to see if some sort of invisible switch had been flipped or not. As far as William could tell, only one thing had really changed:
He really, really needed to use the bathroom.
He put on his briefs (they had landed on the desk across the room) and went through the apartment as quietly as he could even though no one was around. Habit from home. Nissa's apartment was the same layout as his, so he went down the hall and hung a left. He glanced into the living room as he passed, then nearly jumped out of his socks; Nissa's father was home! He was sitting in his usual chair, beer in hand, staring at the window.
William's mouth went dry and he babbled for a moment before saying: "Oh! Crap, um, Mister…" He hesitated; what the hell was Nissa's family's name? "Spenser!" Was that right? He'd never even actually spoken to Nissa's father before, just inched around that one chair he always sat in the few other times he'd been in the apartment.
He tried again. "Uh, hi sir. I'm sorry, I was just…"
Just what, walking around your apartment in my underwear? I'm a dead man, William thought. But then he realized that Mr. Spenser had still not even so much as looked at him. The man continued to stare at the window, watery blue eyes blinking now and then, raising his beer can to his lips over and over, but otherwise remaining motionless. When the can was empty he crushed it and tossed it on the floor, then pulled another one from the warm 12-pack nearby. He acted as if William did not exist at all.
"Hello?" William said. Something prickled at the back of his neck. He edged into the room. Now that he was in he could see the TV on the opposite wall and the backs of two kid's heads as they sat in front of it, quiet and attentive. The kids didn't react to him either. William was right next to Nissa's father but the man was in a world all his own "Hello?" William said again. Mr. Spenser still did not react.
Something about this situation didn't seem right. William thought hard; had Mr. Spenser ever said anything to him? Had he ever even seen Mr. Spenser get out of this chair? Nissa's bedroom was right by the front door, so how could Mr. Spenser have come home again without William hearing anything? Steeling his courage, William dared to tap Mr. Spenser on the arm; his skin felt cold and hard, and his entire body rocked back and forth in the chair as if it were a single solid piece. William jumped. "What the fuck?" he said. William touched him again and Mr. Spenser slid out of the chair, rolling onto the floor with a thud. William's heart stopped.
From the front Mr. Spenser was a remarkable facsimile of a human being; even now, lying on the floor, his face continued to move, his eyes continued to blink, and his arms and hands groped around, following the same preset motions over and over again, animated by whatever force that gave the wooden figure a semblance of life. But as William could see now, he was only a façade; there was no back to him, and he was hollow on the inside.
William backed away from the grotesque thing and went so far that he almost bumped right into the kids. Turning around, he saw that they had still not moved an inch from where they sat. He remembered again that there the handful of times he'd been here before there were always two kids in front of the TV, never turning around. He pushed one over and found that it, too, was only a carved simulacrum. The hollow figure rolled on the floor, vacant. He started to hyperventilate.
"We call them 'fetches.'"
William jumped. Nissa stood in the doorway.
"Fake people, placeholders," she said. "A little trick from back home. I know they aren't very good; I'm not much of a craftsman. But I had to do something to make the place look lived-in. Give me credit, you were fooled until you got close."
William backed against the wall, shaking his head. "No," he said. "This isn't happening. No, no, this isn't happening…"
Nissa came toward him but he circled the perimeter of the room, keeping distance between them.
"William, wait," she said. "Let me explain. We just want to help you."
"What is --?"
He stopped. What did she mean "we"? Then he heard a floorboard creak behind him and he turned.
"William," said the troll father, "let us help."
William ran. Nissa was in his way, but she didn't stop him. He saw that she was crying as he left. He leapt practically all the stairs in one go on the way down. He reached his door and fumbled in his pockets. His fingers felt fat and clumsy as they groped with the keys. Finally he was inside, and he slammed the door so hard it shook the wall, surprising him.
His mind reeled and he felt sick to his stomach. He ran for the bathroom, thinking he was about to vomit, but something happened before he got there. What was going on? He felt strange. His muscles ached and his bones throbbed. His vision blurred and he dropped to his knees. His heart pounded so hard he thought it would burst. Did she do something to me, he thought, am I poisoned? His clothes grew tight around his body; he was suffocating! He struggled to the bathroom door, and when he saw his own hand on the knob he finally realized what was happening.
"No," he said, voice trembling. "No, no, no!"
He opened the door. He went to the mirror. He looked.
It was an hour before his parents came home, and it was sundown before they started to worry about him. He watched his father pick up the phone and try to make a call looking for him, then put it down, blinking and confused. William couldn't blame him. There really wasn't anyone to call.
William wanted to say something, but he didn't. He knew now how the trolls kept hidden; they could only be seen when they called attention to themselves. So long as he stayed very still and made little noise, he could remain here in the same room with his parents indefinitely without them ever knowing. It seemed better this way.
He watched his mother cry. He watched his father go pale with worry. He watched them talk to the police. Finally the two of them fell asleep on the couch, exhausted, his mother's head in his father's lap. When he was sure they were out he approached, quietly, and placed his hand on his mother's pregnant belly. He felt the rise and fall, and the intense heat against his palm. His mother stirred, but did not wake. The baby stirred too.
A floorboard creaked. "Hello William," said the troll father.
"Hello darling," said the troll mother. They were right behind him, he knew, but he didn't turn around. He felt the troll father's hand on his shoulder.
"Hello," William said.
"How are you feeling?" said the troll father.
"I'm not sure," said William. He found it hard to speak with the tusks and pronounced lower jaw, but he guessed he would get used to it soon. He touched his father on the hand.
"Would you like to say goodbye to them?" said the troll mother. "We could make you look human again, for a few minutes…"
William shook his head. The troll father sighed.
"We tried to tell you," he said.
"I know," said William. He paused. Then, "Tell me now. Tell me what happened."
"We did the exchange years ago," said the troll father, "took the human baby and left you in its place, the way it's always been done. You were supposed to come back to us. For some reason, you didn't."
William's hand dashed tears away from his eyes. "Why did you do it?" said William. "Not why did you take the baby, I understand that part, it's what you do. But why the switch? Why leave your own child?"
"It's part of the magic of it," said the troll father. "The fairy child is a charm that makes the human parents forget they ever had a baby. To make it easier on them. And when the spell is done, the fairy child comes back home."
"Except I didn't," William said. "What about the…the real baby?"
"We raised him as one of us, of course," said the troll father. "He's eager to finally meet his brother."
"So many times in your life we wanted to come and tell you the truth," said the troll mother. "But we couldn't find a way to break the charm that made you seem human. It should have worn off on its own, and when it didn't…" She trailed off.
"How did you finally do it?" William said.
"Nissa," said the troll mother. "Her kiss broke the spell. It was the one thing you never had -- affection."
"Who is she?"
"One of us. A friend," said the troll mother. "Someone who agreed to look after you."
"Did you take the Mercer baby?"
"No," said the troll father, "that was another family. Nissa told them there was a new baby in the building, and they came for it. It's the way of things."
"What about…" He choked up for a moment. "What about this one?" He gestured to his mother's belly. "Will you take it? Will they?"
"No," said the troll mother. "No. We'll leave them alone now."
"They did raise you, after all, as best as they knew how," said the troll father.
William swallowed hard. "Okay then," he said. And he turned to look at his real parents. They smiled and drew him in.
"Are you ready?" said the troll mother. William nodded.
"All right then," said the troll father. "Let's go home."
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