"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, but what else could he do?
The Menskrs had lived in the apartment downstairs for years and had been trying to have a baby for as long as anyone could remember. So William’s mother insisted they all pay a congratulatory visit that day and see the new arrival.
William hadn't much been interested, but going along was easier than arguing. He lingered over the crib while his parents and the Menskrs talked 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 (“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, gurgled and tried to wave his stubby arms, which even William had to admit was pretty cute.
Then something 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 William could swear that the baby really was looking right at him and thinking, considering, pondering, in a way that was impossible.
He tried to tell himself it was all in his head and 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.
His first instinct was to scream. Instead he stood there, paralyzed. The baby watched him, its cold little eyes filled with sagacity, and then it repeated: "You have to go home.”
And then William ran.
He was sure that if he called for his parents or the Menskrs 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 to the park down the street. There he found a small playground, empty of children in the early evening hours before dark, and sat on a swing, kicking the dirt and thinking about what he should do.
First, he would never go back to the Menskr's again. And he would never tell anyone what happened with the baby; especially not his parents.
It would be the last straw. He knew what they thought of him: They never said anything, but he knew that they, like almost everyone else, had never been comfortable around him. His mother, almost 40 weeks pregnant now after 18 years 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 remind herself she had one son already.
It wasn’t that his parents didn’t love him. But it was the kind of love you might feel for a distant relative with whom you occasionally correspond.
Not long after the new baby was due, William would leave for college, and he imagined it would be like he’d never been there at all. He just wanted to keep things together until then; to make his last weeks at home semi-pleasant and semi-normal for everyone.
So, no telling his parents about the hallucination (if that’s what it was), and certainly no telling the Menskrs. He’d keep it to himself, like everything else. It was better that way.
It was getting darker. He thought he should go home, but the dread of explaining to his parents why he'd run off 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 sitting at the feet of one of the concourse statues and, over days and weeks, slowly petrifying into a bronze just like it.
Or maybe he could just wander off the path 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.
He’d gotten so lost in thought that he jumped when he heard his own name, spoken almost directly in his hear: "William?"
It was Nissa, he realized. She was standing at the playground gate, her eyes gauging him. He wondered how long she’d been there.
"I was walking by and I saw you sitting,” she said. “Thought I'd say hello. You okay?" Nissa said. She came a few steps closer, peering at him.
He opened his mouth to say, "Yeah," but instead he said, "No. Not at all."
He always had trouble lying to Nissa. When his parents asked him how his day was, he would say fine and change the subject. But when Nissa asked, he really answered.
She was the same age as him and lived in the apartment upstairs. Her bedroom was even right over his, he knew, though he had never seen it. She had four younger brothers and they all lived with just their father.
Her father, William knew, lived off of disability and drank too much, though he never seemed to shout or hurt the kids. Mostly just sat and drank beer after beer all day long. Nissa minded her brothers. She’d never gone to school, as far as William knew. He saw her infrequently, but always wished he’d see her more.
"I'm going to hang out in the concourse for a while,” she said. “Want to come?"
"You hang out in the park at night? 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. So I took a walk. Join me?"
William hesitated. But this was his big chance to really spend time with her, just the two of them, no parents, no siblings…
They had to take the underpass beneath the hill. It wasn’t that long, but at night it was so pitch black that it seemed endless. He wanted to take Nissa's hand but instead he shoved his own hands in his pockets. When he came out the other side he saw that Nissa was already clear on the other side of the plaza. How had she gotten so far ahead of him?
He ran to catch up, past the empty fountains and the blank-eyed statues of Beethoven and Father Serra. When he was a kid he used to imagine he heard the statues talking. It scared the shit out of him. His mother convinced him he was just hearing echoes, and he guessed she was right. But even now they gave him the willies.
Nissa led him to a garden on a side path. 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 walls.
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, going from each to each. He didn't really understand what the lines meant, but the feeling of Nissa’s warm breath on his cheek was pleasant. She read the last one twice:
"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 didn’t understand what it meant. But he did understand that Nissa was standing very, very close to him, and even though it was dark and he couldn’t see her face he knew 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 and looked away, letting go of her hand.
"What do you mean?" he said.
"I asked before if you were okay and you said no. And you looked scared when I ran into you. So I thought something might be wrong."
William scratched the back of his head, wondering what to say. He could not—would not—lie to Nissa, but he couldn’t very well tell her the truth about the baby and whatever other crazy things were going on.
"Have you ever had a day where you weren't sure what was really happening?" he said.
"All the time. I call those weekdays. Also, weekends."
He wasn’t sure if she was making fun of him. In the dark her face was a big black spot, impossible to read. 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. "Do you think—?"
But he was already gone. He didn’t run this time. He’d lived long enough to know that no matter how fast you run, you can never get away from yourself. But he walked as speedily as he could.
He made it to the underpass before realizing what had been bothering him all this time. Someone had followed them. He must have heard the trailing footsteps without really being aware of it. But now, just at the mouth of the tunnel, the stalker revealed himself.
William was grateful that it was too dark to really see, because the little he could make out was bad enough. It was a big man; no, a HUGE man, at least eight feet tall. The stranger’s head was the size of a safe, and it seemed his jaw protruded underneath a bulbous, cartoonish nose.
It was a shaggy thing too, covered in hair except for its face and hands. Those hands looked big enough to close over William's entire head. But its eyes were small, out of proportion with the rest of it, just little flecks of green set beneath an ape-like brow, eyes so bright that they showed up even in the dark.
William froze. It’s a monster, he thought, a real monster, standing in the mouth of the tunnel. It was looking right at him. And, just when William really thought things couldn’t get any worse, the monster said his name:
And for the second time that day, he ran.
It was late. William was in bed, thinking. The 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 he hadn’t left her today.
Of course, that had at least as much to do with what he saw when he was alone again as with his worry that he’d hurt her feelings. The tunnel monster had disappeared almost as soon as William started running, flickering out of sight so quickly that, like with the baby earlier, he couldn’t be sure later whether it had really happened at all.
He’d kept running anyway, of course. Better safe than sorry.
Now he rolled over in the bed and pictured the scene in the garden again. He and Nissa were together, 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.
But he did imagine Nissa pushing him up against the brick wall, tugging his belt off, and sliding his pants down his legs. He tried to imagine what her hands would feel like, or her lips.
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 always use his left hand; she was left handed, and so was he, the only left-handed person in his family. It pleased him to know they had this little thing in common.
What would she say? He knew what the women in those movies on the Internet said, but he couldn't imagine Nissa that way. Unless of course she watched those same movies?
The thought sent a surge through his body and he closed his eyes, trying to imagine all the sensory details that he could, from the feeling of the rough brick wall 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 about 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. He imagined himself moving, pushing with his hips. He thought about her mouth, and his (cock) and the movement of his hips and the thrill of knowing that they were together, finally together, in the ultimate way.
But would she want him? Really want him? Would she want that part of him? Was that possible? Maybe he had it all wrong. Maybe he should have her lie down on the soft grass in the garden and pull her panties down so he could put his mouth and tongue between them, then lick her until she was wet all over?
Would she moan? Would she say his name? He wanted that acknowledgement. He wanted to feel those things happen to her and know that he was the one doing it. And he wanted her to want him to come inside her, to hold her against him and slide his, his (cock) into her wet pussy, and, oh God, he wanted to fuck—
His train of thought crashed to a halt the same way it always did: with a spasm, a feeling like a firecracker going off, and then a mess that had to be cleaned up.
He blushed, quietly ashamed. The aftermath of his fantasies always seemed inadequate to him. William went to the hamper and found a pair of discarded briefs to wipe himself with.
When he finished he went to open the window and get some night air, but when he pulled the blinds up he screamed, then fell over, then scampered away.
There, in the window, as if waiting for him, was the monster from the park. And worse, it wasn’t alone. The second creature looked very like the first, but was somewhat shorter and had finer features, and the hair that covered it had soft gold highlights.
The pair of them 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 seventh floor!
The male creature, the one William saw in the park, said, "Hello, William.”
"Hello, William" said the female creature. "Can we come in?"
This was too much. He jumped up and ran for the door, meaning to scream for his parents, but stopped himself. He was sure the monsters would be gone by the time he brought anyone else in.
Besides, was this really happening or was he losing it again? He pressed his face against the cool wood of the door, feeling the texture of the paint, reassured by the tangibility of something solid. Just take a deep breath, he told himself. The world will start making sense again soon. I hope…
"We won't hurt you," said the female creature. "We just want to talk."
“Okay. So talk.”
They paused. "It would be easier if you would let us in…" said the male one.
William wondered why they didn't just break in. Did they need to be invited in first, like vampires? Or maybe, he thought, they just don't want to scare me more than they already have…
“We need your help,” the male monster added.
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 big eyes.
"Find someone else to help you," William said. "Just leave me alone."
"We can't do that," the woman said. "We need you."
"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 over the monster’s faces. A ridiculous gesture, but it was all he could do.
His heart pounded as he waited to see how they would react. When the male monster spoke again, his voice was so soft it was barely audible over the wind:
"We need your help 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 even the baby and the park and Nissa had been a dream too.
He went out to breakfast, but when he sat down the feeling of dread come back to 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 Menskr’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 Menskr baby, and about work, and about William's aunt's upcoming 50th birthday, and as always 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, feeling for movement. William thought about how strange an unborn baby is: half in the world, half out of it.
It was Saturday and he was free to do whatever he wanted after breakfast. He thought about going upstairs to see Nissa. He didn’t 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.
But of course, he was afraid to also. Instead he decided to go to the library. It was partly an excuse to get out of the house, but he also had a particular book in mind that he wanted to look up, one that, if it was still there after all these years, might confirm whether or not the things he was seeing lately were real…
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. His father told him to be home before it was dark, but that was all. 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 to find the book he wanted, the book he’d liked so much as a child, and he sat down in a quiet corner with it. Inside were vivid illustrations of fairy tale creatures: wizened gnomes, shy, knowing fairies, shadowy dwarfs, 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. It was similar, but not quite what he was looking for.
On the next page, he found it: a painting of a beautiful woman sitting on a tree stump, surrounded by huge, shaggy creatures with long faces and enormous noses. Three of them seemed to be men and the fourth 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 previous day. They were almost identical, in fact.
But were there really such things as trolls in this day and age? 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, then browsed the other shelves until he found a book on Celtic folk stories. Looking up "changeling" in the index, he went to the relevant page:
"There is particularly pronounced belief among the laboring classes that children are vulnerable to abduction by fairies. Supposedly the sidhe creatures will steal a child out of its crib and replace it with one of their own, and this substitute is what they know as a 'changeling.’
The fairy will pose as the stolen child for some time before seeming to die (but in fact simply returning back to its own fairy family), sometimes causing mischief before it departs.”
William pondered what he'd read. The trolls had said they wanted his help getting their son back. Were they talking about the Menskr baby? The changeling book was about fairies, but maybe trolls and fairies were the same thing? So had the trolls stolen the real Menskr baby and left a changeling in its place?
Why would they come to William for help getting it back? Because the baby spoke to him, of course, but why him in the first place?
He returned the books and took the bus home. His reading made him feel better, somehow. At least now he had a name for what was happening, and some information that almost made sense.
He considered going for a walk in the park and seeing if he encountered anything again, but decided there was no need. They knew where to find him, after all. All he had to do was wait.
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. "I won’t help you,” he said.
The creatures assumed pained expressions. "You don't understand," said the troll father. "Our son is—"
"Downstairs in the Menskrs’ apartment. And you need me to do something so you can go and get him back. But what about the Menskrs’ 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 of our own."
"It's easy for humans," said the troll mother. Bitterness tinted her voice. "They could just have another baby without even trying. Not like us."
"We can’t leave my son here,” the troll father added. “You’re young, but can’t you imagine what it’s like?”
William crossed his arms. "I guess. But I won't do anything to help you unless you bring the real baby back."
"That's impossible," said the troll father. "You don't even know how impossible that 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. His heart hardened.
The pair pleaded a bit longer, but when William refused to relent they eventually vanished. He shivered and rubbed his bare arms, then went to close the blinds.
Just before he did, he heard it: the sound of a creaky window frame sliding shut and latching right over his head. Was that Nissa? Her bedroom was right above his; had her window been open? Had she heard everything?
His heart did little jumps at the thought of her. That was normal, but now there was an even more special reason: If Nissa had been eavesdropping, William would finally, completely know that the trolls were real.
He stared at the ceiling again 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, even though she was never really there.
It was Sunday. His parents had church on Sundays, though for reasons he was never entirely clear on they'd never 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 her one and only good dress 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, then slapped on his shoes, fumbled his keys in the 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 was afraid Nissa’s father might answer when he knocked, but instead Nissa herself came. 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 he remembered it always was the few other times he’d been here. He heard the sounds of a TV, but they were faint. Nissa locked the door and took William by the hand. He got a little lightheaded. Down boy, he thought.
"Come on," she said, pulling him down the hall. “Let's talk in my room."
William tripped. "What will your dad say?"
"He's not here," Nissa said. "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, rolling her eyes. "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 even 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 painting project that had been abandoned. The window was open, and it jogged his memory about why he’d come. He realized Nissa was talking, and had been talking the whole time, but that 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 at him, instead quieting 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…look, last night, did you have your window open?"
She paled noticeably.
"Did you…" he looked at a corner of the room for no reason. "Hear anything strange? Anything from, ya know…my room?"
When he looked back he was shocked to see how horrified Nissa looked. 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 I was losing my mind!"
Without thinking, William put an arm around her. Nissa leaned into him until she could talk again. "I thought I was alone," she said.
"Me too," said William. Taking a deep breath, he told her everything that'd happened since the Menskr's apartment. Her eyes got wider and wider as he talked.
"I had no idea about the Menskr'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 something like that. I mean, they seemed…nice, in a way."
"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 again. "All the more reason they shouldn’t be hurting other people's families," he said.
Nissa nodded. "Of course you're right. I just don't know what to do. I've been so scared."
William was suddenly very aware that her body was pressed against his. He felt the curved side of her right breast through her shirt. "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 this feeling be? Oh God, he thought, please don’t faint.
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. So far this was exceeding his wildest expectations.
So he kissed her again, and again, and again, and he didn’t stop her when she went to close the door. He shut his eyes and ran his hands over the sheets on 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. "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. Understand?"
He froze. What the hell do you say to a thing like that? Then she bit his ear, hard. Without thinking, he grabbed her by the hair and kissed her neck, 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 moaned again, and soon he felt the pressure down below. Nissa rearranged herself on his lap to accommodate the growing obstruction.
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 in his entire life (his mother often made a point of the fact that he was a bottle-fed baby, though he was not really sure why it ever 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 said at the beginning he snapped out of it. Though his fingers trembled he wrapped his hands around them and squeezed. They didn't feel at all like he expected.
Nissa winced. "Too hard!" she said. William panicked and almost let go, but at the last second he simply eased off instead. Nissa purred. "That's better," she said. He licked one and she 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. Sights and sounds and scents overlapped 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 got 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, 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.
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 looked like. He preferred to hope someone else had already taken care of it. 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; 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? Then Nissa reached down between her own legs, circling her fingers around his testicles and glancing against his erection, which he guided down...
"No, that's not quite it," Nissa said. William blushed.
"Sorry," he said.
"Hang on, I'll help."
"That's not quite—"
"There, try it there," she said.
He felt something warm and wet. He tensed up and then, one inch at a time, untensed, as a wave of relief washed over him. He tested the feeling with one or two tentative movements, then dared to make a hard and heavy one, all the way in.
He worried he might hurt her somehow, but it didn't seem to be a problem. In fact, he felt her go even wetter around him. "Ohhh God…" Nissa said.
"Mmmm," was all William could say. But that was okay. She was talkative enough for both of them.
After, Nissa lay in bed, sheets tangled up around her, dozing a little. William watched her. It really happened, he thought. He wasn’t sure how and he wasn’t sure why, but it had definitely happened.
He didn’t feel any different…but maybe that was a good thing.
He was suddenly very aware of his nakedness again. How long had they been at it? Were his parents back? Was her father? Another heart attack seemed to be coming on. "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?"
He 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 20 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 while she dreamed. It reminded him of the Menskr baby, in an odd way.
Eventually he needed to use the bathroom. He put on his pants (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 (a habit from home).
Nissa's apartment was the same layout as his, so he went down the hall and hung a left. The floorboards creaked. Returning, William glanced into the living room, and then nearly fell over: Nissa's father was sitting in his easy chair!
“Oh! God, um, Mister…" He blanked; 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, he thought, walking around your apartment half-naked? I'm a dead man.
But Mr. Spenser did not reply. He sat in his usual chair, beer in hand, staring at the window, now and then, raising his beer to his lips but otherwise doing nothing. 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. He edged into the room. Something prickled at the back of his neck. Now he could see the TV and the backs of two kids’ heads as they watched, quiet and attentive.
William was right next to Nissa's father but the man didn’t seem aware of anything around him. His watery blue eyes never blinked.
How could Mr. Spenser have come home again without William hearing anything? Then William thought hard: Had Mr. Spenser ever said anything to him? Had he ever even seen Mr. Spenser get up out of this chair? He couldn’t remember. The prickly feeling got worse.
Steeling his courage, William dared to tap Mr. Spenser on the arm. The man’s skin felt cold and hard, and his entire body rocked back and forth, as if it were a single, solid piece. William jumped. "What the fuck?" he said.
The man in the chair did not respond. William touched him again and Mr. Spenser slid out of the chair, rolling onto the floor with a thud.
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 blinked, and his arms and hands groped around, following the same preset motions over and over again, animated by whatever force gave the wooden figure a semblance of life.
But he was only a façade: There was no back to him. He was hollow on the inside, half a person only, the illusion ruined the moment the puppet was taken out of the chair.
William backed away from the grotesque, twitching thing and bumped right into the kids. One fell over, revealing that it, too, was only a carved simulacrum. The hollow figure rolled on the floor. William started to hyperventilate.
"We call them 'fetches,’” Nissa said.
William jumped. She stood in the doorway, half dressed.
"Fake people," she continued. “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. Most people never bother to look close at them anyway.”
William backed against the wall, shaking his head. “This isn’t happening,” he said.
Nissa came toward him but he circled the room, keeping distance between them. "Let me explain," she said. “We just want to help you."
"I don’t want help," William said. He stopped. What did she mean "we?”
He heard a floorboard creak behind him. He turned around.
"William," said the troll father. “Please listen."
William ran. Nissa was in his way, but she didn't stop him. He ran out the door, leapt the stairs in one go, and was at his apartment in less time than it took to exhale. He fumbled in his pockets for his keys. His fingers felt fat and clumsy all of a sudden, and the lock gave him trouble.
Finally he pushed the door in and then slammed it so hard it shook the wall. His mind reeled. He ran for the bathroom, thinking he was about to vomit. What was going on? He felt strange: His muscles ached and his bones throbbed. His vision blurred and he dropped to his knees.
Did she do something to me, he thought? Am I poisoned? His clothes grew tight around his body. He was suffocating!
William 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 wanted to say something to reassure them, but he didn't. He just watched them pace and cry and argue.
He was three feet away, but they never realized he was there. He knew now how the trolls kept hidden: They could only be seen when they called attention to themselves. So long as William stayed very still and made little noise, no one even knew he was here. It seemed better that way.
He watched them talk to the police. Eventually they fell asleep on the couch, exhausted, his mother's head in his father's lap. When he was sure they were completely out he approached, quietly, and put a hand on his mother's pregnant belly.
The baby stirred. There was noise behind him but he didn’t turn around. He felt the troll father put one hand on his shoulder, the troll mother’s hand on the other. "How are you feeling?" said the troll father.
"I'm not sure," William said. It was hard to talk: His mouth felt too big, and his teeth stuck out. He’d get used to it eventually, he assumed.
"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. “It wouldn’t matter.” The troll father sighed.
"We tried to tell you," he said.
"I know," said William. He paused. Then: "Tell me now."
"We did the exchange years ago," said the troll father. “We took the human baby and left you in its place, the way it's always been done. But you were supposed to come back to us. For some reason, you didn't."
"So many times 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.
"What finally did the trick?" 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,” the troll mother said. “Someone who agreed to look after you."
William's hand dashed tears away from his eyes. "Why did you do it?" he said. "Why the switch? Why leave me? What’s the point?"
"It's part of the magic," said the troll father. "The fairy child is a charm that makes the human parents forget that they ever had a baby. To make it easier on them.”
“And when the spell is done, the fairy child comes back home,” the troll mother said.
"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."
"And this one?" He gestured to his mother's belly. "Will you take it, too?"
"No," said the troll mother. "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," he said. And he turned to look at his real parents. They hugged him tight.
"Are you ready?" said the troll mother. William nodded.