"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. 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 even 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 it 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 filled with sagacity and even alacrity, and then it repeated: "You have to go home, William.”
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 in the early evening hours before dark, and he sat on a swing, kicking the dirt and wondering if he was losing his mind.
William considered what to do. He would never go back to the Mercer's again, that was for sure. 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 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. It had always been that way. His mother, almost forty weeks pregnant now after nearly two decades 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 was not that his parents didn’t love him. They did. But it was the kind of love you might feel for a for a distant relative with whom you occasionally corresponded than for your own child. William often thought of it as the reflection of love. Not long after the new baby was due William would leave for school, 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 Mercers. 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 going and 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.
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, but something stopped him. At first he wasn't sure what he’d seen; shadows on top of other shadows obscured his sight. But there it was again: something moving at the mouth of the underpass, the one that burrowed straight through the hill and connected this playground and walking path to the concourse plaza beyond. Someone was lurking around in the tunnel, and maybe had been for some time? William started a little, alarmed, but he did not become truly scared or think to run until the stranger came into view.
It was a big man. No, a HUGE man, too big to be real, at least eight feet tall, so that he had to duck in the tunnel. The stranger’s head was enormous, the size of a safe, and his jaw protruded underneath a cartoonish, bulbous nose. Two great, pointed teeth, like tusks, stuck out from the creature's rubbery bottom lip. It was a shaggy thing, covered in hair except for its face and hands. It wore clothes made from animal hides, but no shoes, its gigantic feet cracking the loose earth under it. Its 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, his body suddenly soaked in cold sweat. This can’t be happening, he thought: It’s a monster. It’s a real monster, and it’s looking right at me. And then, just when he thought that this day could grow no more bizarre, the monster 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. William gaped and squinted against the dark, trying to see if the enormous silhouette was hiding in 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 not saying anything about it now. She didn't see it. So it must not have been real. 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."
He always had trouble lying to Nissa. She 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, 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. 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, and never graduated. There was nothing remarkable about Nissa at all, except for William’s marked and singular inability to equivocate with her. When his parents asked him how his day was, he would say fine and change the subject, but when Nissa asked, he really told her. It was impossible not to.
Nissa was still looking at him now. William squirmed. Finally she broke her stare and nodded her head, gesturing to the tunnel. "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. So I took a walk. Join me?"
William hesitated. He was afraid of going through the underpass, imagining that he would brush 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 he just standing here, not even warning her. And besides, he really did want to spend time with her, just the two of them, alone together, no parents, no siblings…
“Okay,” he grunted.
William held his breath as they went into the tunnel. He wanted to take Nissa's hand but instead he shoved his own 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 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 the statues gave him the willies.
A bronze gladiator holding a dagger reared up over its pedestal 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. “What are we doing here?” he said.
“Come on,” was all the answer he got. Nissa slipped her hand into his and his heart jumped up a little.
The garden 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. The last spot was empty, and it seemed someone had pried the plaque off the wall. 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 understood 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 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 either, about the baby and the monster and whatever other crazy things were going on. 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, 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. "William," she said as he left, "do you think—?"
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 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 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. For some bizarre reason, sex seemed less taboo than just a kiss, perhaps because it was such a foreign concept to him that it barely seemed like a real thing.
He tried to imagine what Nissa’s hands would feel like on him, 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 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 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 being 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 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. 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 that could brook no rejection of any kind.
But would she want him? Really want him? Would she want that part of him? Was that possible? 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 was more comfortable with, particularly in regards to Nissa) dreaming about him? It was too much to think about.
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 curiously inadequate to him. In the first few seconds after it he always pictured Nissa's disgust if she could see him wiping himself up. He sighed. His inexperience made him feel inadequate, like he was only half a person, cut off from the wider world.
Sheepish despite being alone, William went to the hamper and found a pair of discarded briefs to clean himself off 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 new creature looked very like the first, but was somewhat shorter and had finer features, and the hair that covered it had soft gold highlights. William thought it might be a female. 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 fourth floor!
The male creature, the one William saw in the park, spoke: "Hello, William," it said.
"Bah-uh-buh-wha—?" William said.
"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. And besides, was this really happening or was he losing it again? He 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. The world will start making sense again soon. I hope.
"We won't hurt you," said the female creature. "We just want to talk."
William swallowed. "Okay," he said. "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; 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 faced 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 over the monster’s faces. A ridiculous gesture, but it was all he could do. His heart pounded as he waited to see what they would do. 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 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. Everything in his life was starting to feel like a dream.
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 Mercers’.
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 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 as she sat, feeling for movement within. William 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 also had a particular book in mind that he wanted to look up, if it was still there after all these years. 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. 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 with it 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. Surrounding her were a group of 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 in the kids’ section, then browsed the other shelves until he found a book on Celtic 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, 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. Changeling stories are probably a cultural device to account for handicaps, mental retardation, or sudden and unexplained infant deaths."
William pondered what he'd read. The trolls had 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 William 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 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 was now more confident that the creatures (trolls?) were real, though what they wanted was still a mystery. 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. All he’d have to do was wait. 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 asked the creatures.
"Your help," said the troll mother.
"Our son—" said the troll father, but William cut him off.
"You took the Mercers’ baby, didn't you?"
The creatures assumed pained expressions. "You don't understand," said the troll father. "Our son is—"
"Downstairs in the Mercers’ apartment. And you need me to do something so you can go and get him back. But what about the Mercers’ 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."
William's mouth hardened into a line. "How is that the Mercers’ problem?”
"It's so easy for humans," said the troll mother. Bitterness tinted 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. "I can’t leave my son here. You’re young, but can’t you imagine what it’s like? He’s my child; I can’t ever leave him, no matter what."
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. His heart hardened. "Yeah?" he said. "Well, neither do you."
And he turned his back on them. When he turned around again 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 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? 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 would have to wait until morning.
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, that would mean that the trolls were real. And William would finally, really know for sure that he wasn’t losing his mind after all.
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, 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 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 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 hesitated before Nissa's apartment, staring into the faded grain and peeling paint on the old door before knocking twice. He was afraid her father might answer, 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 farther in, but they were faint.
Nissa locked the door and took William by the hand. He got a little lightheaded, but corrected himself. 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 was here. 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 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 in 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 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. Her eyes got wider and wider as he talked.
"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 something like 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 again. "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 very aware that her body was pressed against his. He felt the curved side of her right breast through her shirt. His heart almost stopped.
"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, whatever you do, please, absolutely do not 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, revulsion, or any kind of homicidal urge. So far this was exceeding 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 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, 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 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 at the beginning 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. Nissa 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. 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 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 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. And sometimes it was just the words themselves:
William struggled to focus. 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 to hope 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; 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 she guided down...
Wait, he thought, do I have a condom? He usually carried one in his wallet out of a sense of blind, stupid, doomed optimism, but he'd forgotten his wallet at home and hadn't bothered going back for it. 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 handled it. He was afraid he might rip the damn thing, but finally he got it on. Reminding himself for the hundredth time that this was really happening, he squared his shoulders, took a deep breath, checked his resolve, and then…
"No, that's not quite it," Nissa 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?" Then 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, 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 eloquent enough for both of them.
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. 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?"
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 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. As far as William could tell, only one thing had really changed:
He really, really 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 under his bare feet.
Returning, William glanced into the living room as he passed and then nearly fell over: Nissa's father was sitting in his easy chair! William almost screamed. Then he babbled for a moment before managing to say: “Oh! God, 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, 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, watery blue eyes blinking now and then, raising his beer can to his lips over and over 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 on the opposite wall, 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. "Hello?" William said again. No answer.
Nissa's bedroom was right by the front door; 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 a single occasion. The prickly feeling got worse.
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, 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. 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 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 as William could see now, 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, vacant. William started to hyperventilate.
"We call them 'fetches.'"
William jumped. Nissa stood in the doorway.
"Fake people," she said. “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. "No," he said. "This isn't happening. This isn't happening."
Nissa came toward him but he circled the room, keeping distance between them.
"William, let me explain," she said. “We just want to help you."
"I don’t want help," William said. “All I want—“
He stopped; what did she mean "we"?
He heard a floorboard creak behind him. He turned around.
"William," said the troll father, "please let us help."
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 take a breath. 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 slammed it behind him, so hard it shook the wall.
His mind reeled and he felt sick to his stomach. 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, and worry. 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, his parents were blind to him. It seemed better that 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 completely out he approached, quietly, and placed his hand on his mother's pregnant belly. He felt the rise and fall of her breathing and the intense heat against his palm. She stirred but did not wake. The baby stirred too.
A sound from behind him; someone else was in the apartment. The troll father cleared his throat. "Hello, William," he said.
"Hello, darling," said the troll mother. They were right behind him, but he didn't turn around, even when the troll father put a hand on William’s shoulder. He had to swallow before he could talk.
"Hello," William said.
"How are you feeling?" said the troll father.
"I'm not sure," William said. It was 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. “No,” he said. “It wouldn’t matter.” He started to cry. 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. “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 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.
"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. “A friend. 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. "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 hugged him tight.
"Are you ready?" said the troll mother. William nodded.
"All right then," said the troll father. "Let's go home."