“What about an old one?”
“The old ones aren’t scary, they’re shlocky.”
“Sarah, you’re fighting a losing battle.”
Sarah rolled her eyes and leaned against her locker, two thick library books that wouldn’t fit in her already-full backpack clutched in her arms. “Leila, it’s Halloween. Can’t you break your no-horror-movies rule just for tonight?”
Leila checked her reflection in her locker mirror, running a hand over her short, kinky hair and adjusting the collar of her white button-down shirt. “I’ll give you credit, you’ve been asking me this every Halloween since sixth grade, and even though I always say no you never give up.”
Sarah sighed. “You just don’t know what you’re missing. We like so many of the same things, I can’t believe you don’t like scary movies.”
“And I could give you the thirty-second version of why, but you’ve heard that one a dozen times, so I’ll stick to the two-second version: skinny jerks with expensive haircuts making stupid decisions is not my idea of a good time.”
“Leila, they’re not like that anymore. There’s like, horror movies from other countries, and horror movies about girls who have sex and don’t die…”
Leila closed her locker. “Which I’m sure you will enjoy while I’m at home studying for the trig test.”
“Not going trick-or-treating?”
Leila rolled her eyes. “Please. Last time I went trick-or-treating I was twelve and some jerk said “What are you, thirty?” when he opened the door.”
“What about a Halloween party?”
“I hate people. Present company excepted. You know this, you mostly hate people too.” They made their way through the crowded hallway to the parking lot. “And what’s up with all the questions? I should be asking you why you’re so eager to babysit for like the tenth time in a month.”
Sarah blushed. “They give me money for it. And Toby just sleeps, I can watch movies or read books.”
“I dunno, I’m starting to think that you dropped Toby on his head or something and this is a way to make yourself feel less guilty.”
Sarah looked away. “I didn’t drop him on his head,” she said quietly. “I was just a jerk to him for a long time.”
“Well, I’m happy to join you when it’s not scary movie night, you know that. Given that my parents never let me do anything that isn’t ‘going to a female friend’s house that they can reach in five minutes or less’.”
Sarah laughed. “You should really bring a guy over some time. It seems weird to say that you’re coming to my place to watch movies and then actually come to my place to watch movies. There should be some subterfuge.”
“A guy? No thanks, I don’t have a death wish.”
They crossed the school’s large parking lot toward Leila’s very old car. “Sure you won’t be doing anything Halloween-ish?” Sarah pressed, wincing as the heavy door shrieked when she opened it. “No stuffing your face with candy or watching spooky cartoons?”
“Nah.” Leila dug in her bag for her keys and put them in the ignition The car very reluctantly roared to life. “Honestly, Halloween is kind of a downer for me.”
Sarah blinked. “Really? Why?”
Leila shrugged. “I guess my family’s superstitious and they told me a lot of stories that creeped me out from the time I was little. Not that I believe them,” she said, a little too quickly, “just, Halloween always feels kind of creepy.”
For at least the tenth time in the past six months Sarah longed to tell her friend about the real monsters she should be afraid of, about careless words and their consequences, about how reckless actions could find you staring down a machine made of swirling knives and wondering if you would live to ever worry about a math test again…
…but she didn’t, of course, because Leila was everything to her, and she couldn’t bear the thought of her oldest friend nodding and smiling and saying she believed it all but secretly thinking that Sarah had finally lost her mind.
Instead they talked about inconsequential things on the short drive home—Leila’s crush on Ross Lee, who had actually made eye contact with her in world geography the day before, and Sarah’s mild heartbreak over Eric Stowell, who’d been semi-flirting with her for weeks but now seemed to be going out with the captain of the dance team.
A faint breeze was rustling the large tree in the front yard and the sun was gleaming golden against the windows when they pulled into Sarah’s driveway. She noticed a few parents already taking their children out for early trick-or-treating, most of them dressed in some variation of ghost, witch, or superhero costumes. She suddenly had the urge to dress Toby up like…not a goblin, certainly. Maybe a knight.
“See you tomorrow, have fun watching people die of their own stupidity,” Leila called as Sarah got out of the car.
“Will do,” Sarah replied. “And hey, if tonight gets especially creepy for some reason, text me, okay? No shame.”
Leila smiled, and there was genuine relief in her face. It was, Sarah thought, the best thing about the two of them—the way that they shared similar fears and anxieties, and the way they could always count on the other person to pick up the phone when those fears or anxieties attacked, no matter the time of day or night.
The wind picked up slightly. Sarah pulled her jacket tighter around her, waved to Leila as she pulled out of the driveway, and went inside.
“…and they were many, my lady, and fierce as dragons, aptly named, but Ambrosius did not falter, and the harvest was saved for another season by my swordsmanship—“
“More like my dragonfly-repellent, which you was throwin’ around like a sword,” Hoggle growled.
Didymus sighed theatrically. “Friend Hoggle, however am I to maintain my revered status in our lady’s eyes if thou dost consistently denigrate my tales of bravery?”
“Oh, stuff yer big words. I asked ye t’ spray the dragonflies in the turnip patch, and ye did, and I were grateful. Surely that’s enough to impress the lady.”
Sarah laughed. Her phone buzzed and she glanced at it to see a text from Leila. Only thing scary in this house so far is trig. Hows yr stupid movie? She quickly replied, Good no stupid movie yet just put Toby down, neglecting, of course, to mention that she was chatting with friends in a different realm.
She turned her attention back to the mirror. “Your defeat of the dragonflies is certainly enough to impress me, noble sir. I hear they can be quite fierce.”
Didymus gave a low bow. “Indeed they can, my lady. And were it not for my…” he glanced at Hoggle “…spraying skills the beasts might have devoured every turnip, and I would never have enjoyed brave Hoggle’s turnip soup.”
Hoggle grumbled. “Dragonflies don’ eat turnips, they’re jus’ a bother. And don’t be callin’ me brave.”
“Hoggle, you’re quite brave.” Sarah rose from where she’d been sitting on the edge of her bed. “You helped me when it counted, remember?”
Hoggle blushed and became very interested in his hands. “I waited long enough.”
“Well, you weren’t too late.” She chuckled as his face seemed to blush even redder. “I just hope His Royal Fanciness hasn’t been making your life too difficult because of it.”
Hoggle and Didymus both stared at her, and Sarah clapped a hand over her mouth in surprise. It had been an unwritten rule, these past six months since her return, that they didn’t speak of him. It wasn’t as though she was afraid to speak of him (she told herself), it just hadn’t felt right. Hoggle, Didymus, and Ludo were friends. He wasn’t.
Now, though, she found her curiosity piqued. Instinct told her that she shouldn’t say his name (had she ever known his name? Hoggle had said it once, perhaps, but she couldn’t remember it), but speaking of him could hardly be dangerous, could it?
“Is, uh,” she began, trying to sound nonchalant, “is he all right, then? Still tormenting people who wish their brothers and sisters away?”
She laughed, but it was a hollow laugh, and Didymus and Hoggle didn’t share it. Hoggle was carefully examining a spot on his sleeve. After a moment Didymus cleared his throat.
“In truth, my lady, there have been strange happenings afoot where the king is concerned, but we thought little of it—“
“—and we were in agreement that it wouldn’ be doin’ no good to worry you,” Hoggle snapped, giving Didymus a pointed stare.
“Worry me?” Sarah felt a slight prickling of unease. “Why would I worry? What’s going on?”
Hoggle sighed and crossed his arms, giving Didymus a slight nudge. The little knight cleared his throat again. “Truly, my lady, ’tis hardly worth concerning thyself, and I have many more stories of battle to regale thee with—“
“Oh no.” Hoggle stared his companion down until Didymus felt compelled to look away. “You opened this door, you’re goin’ through it.”
Didymus sighed and smoothed a nonexistent wrinkle in his suit. “Well. The king, you see, hath been behaving…somewhat oddly since thou left.”
“Oddly? Oddly how?”
“Nothing too shocking, my lady, only…shall we say, he does not take delight in those things that used to give him pleasure—“
“Hasn’t boxed a goblin’s ears or threatened anyone with bogging in ages,” Hoggle interrupted.
“Yes. And he hath been…singing.”
Sarah laughed. “Singing? That’s not odd. He did plenty of that while I was there.”
“Yes, but…” Didymus looked puzzled. “The words to these songs are strange. Unfamiliar.” He drew himself up to his full height. “Thou knowst that my heart is forged of iron, my lady, and I fear nothing that the labyrinth or the worlds beyond it can produce, but…something in the tone of these songs troubles me.”
The look in Didymus’s eyes unnerved Sarah. It was surprising for him to admit to fear, but it was even more surprising for him to show it so openly.
“Also…” Didymus looked to Hoggle, seeming to seek permission to continue. Hoggle nodded brusquely. “He hath, well…he hath vanished.”
Sarah’s heartbeat suddenly felt very loud. “Vanished? What do you mean, vanished?”
“It is not so strange, my lady. The king moves between worlds in the manner of his kind, and he hath been known to disappear for periods—“
“Disappeared for a whole month a few centuries back, or so’s I heard,” Hoggle interrupted. “Goblins think ‘e was off at some sorta fairy-demon party.”
“All the same, this is the first time in many years that the king hath disappeared so suddenly, though it is only a few days since…”
“And we didn’ tell you ‘cause we didn’ want t’ worry you, because we’re not really thinkin’ it’s somethin’ to worry ab—“
At that moment the image in the mirror suddenly began to flicker, and whatever Hoggle was saying became garbled. “Hoggle? Didymus? Is everything all right?”
The mirror kept flickering, and Sarah heard voices fading in and out that sounded unfamiliar. When the image finally cleared again Hoggle and Didymus were gone, and in their place was a lone goblin.
She blinked. The goblin stared blankly at her. “Uh…hello?”
Like most of the other goblins she remembered, this one was squat and covered in a ragged costume of barely-held-together scraps of leather and rough fabric. It continued to stare at her, and then, very slowly, it smiled, revealing very sharp-looking teeth.
Sarah swallowed and forced herself to smile back. “Any chance you know where my friends have gone?”
The goblin’s eyes darting quickly back and forth, perhaps looking at something Sarah couldn’t see. Then it laughed—or it made a sound that approximated a laugh, an unnerving mix of quick breaths, hoots, and squeaks that contained very little mirth. Its eyes never left her.
Eventually, the mirror went dark.
“Hoggle? Didymus? What’s going on?”
The mirror showed only her own reflection, face slightly pale, hair falling around her shoulders. “Guys? Come back, please, what’s going on?”
They’d always come when she’d called, but she told herself that magic mirrors couldn’t work perfectly all the time. Maybe a wire had gotten crossed somewhere, or someone had thrown a lizard’s leg into the cauldron instead of an owlet’s wing…
Who was that goblin? She’d never seen a goblin in her mirror before, Hoggle and Didymus and Ludo didn’t tend to associate with them.
Sarah shook her head. Goblins were everywhere over there, and they loved their little tricks. There wasn’t necessarily anything ominous in seeing one now, even if Hoggle and Didymus had mysteriously disappeared…
Feeling that sudden itch of foreboding that had never quite gone away since she’d returned from the labyrinth, Sarah wandered across the hall to her parents’ bedroom to check on Toby, who was, of course, still sleeping peacefully in his crib, having gone down a half-hour before with only a bit of crying and fuss. Karen and Sarah’s father continued to be baffled that Sarah had gone from resenting everything about her half-brother to never wanting to leave his side in the space of a single evening, but given that they almost never had to hire a babysitter, they were hardly complaining. Sarah also felt proud that she could soothe Toby to sleep more quickly than either of them.
Sarah checked that the baby monitor was on and wandered downstairs to the kitchen. The wind seemed to be howling slightly louder outside, turning the spaces between the windows and doors into an eerie-sounding instrument. It sounded like it always did in this house, high-pitched and smooth, like someone singing…
Sarah froze, one hand on an open cabinet door, the other reaching toward a package of microwave popcorn. The wind howled all around her, but it seemed to be coalescing into something like a voice…
Warm, moist air brushed against her neck.
She slammed the cabinet door shut and spun around, but of course there was no one there, just the empty kitchen with the baby monitor on the counter that showed a night vision image of a sleeping Toby. Sarah took several deep breaths.
“Right, we’re going to go into the living room now and turn on a scary movie, which will drown out any wind that sounds even vaguely like the sound of singing…”
And then she heard it, and it definitely wasn’t the wind.
When pretty kitty goes to sleep, tail and nose together,
Then little mice around her creep, lightly as a feather…
The voice was soft, and it almost seemed to be coming from inside her own head. It filled her with a sensation of…warmth, and comfort, like being wrapped in a blanket and held against her mother’s chest as a child…
When little baby goes to sleep, and he is very near us,
Then on tip-toe softly creep, that baby may not hear us…
Sarah shook her head vigorously, and the feeling was gone, but then it crept in again as the voice (such a beautiful voice) sang the same words again, and she finally slapped herself hard enough to hurt. Then the voice was just a voice, still there, but not as hypnotic as before, just a woman singing, and it sounded like it was coming from the living room…
Sarah took a deep breath. Nothing scares you anymore, remember? Think of what you’ve done. Think of what you can do.
She walked slowly past the kitchen island to the dining room table, and into the living room beyond. There was no one there. Nothing at all, just her laptop sitting on the coffee table, where she’d been watching videos with Toby before she put him to bed…
One of the videos was playing on a loop, a child’s nursery rhyme, sung by a woman with a cloyingly sweet voice.
Sarah made a sound that was halfway between weeping and laughing as relief flooded through her. Who needs ghosts or horror movies when you can scare yourself half to death by hitting the replay button?
Heart still pounding, she paused the video and closed her laptop, then pulled her phone out of her pocket and texted Leila.
OK am officially a five-year-old because I left a spooky video on my computer and it nearly gave me a heart attack.
Leila texted back almost immediately. Yep yr a baby. If yr gonna be scared at least do it on a dark & stormy night.
Well wind IS howling.
There was a pause. Sarah imagined Leila trying to think of something clever to say.
Weird. No wind over here.
Sarah swallowed. Leila lived only a few blocks away. Ha yr kidding right? Crazy wind here.
Uh huh…maybe djinn are trying to get inside. Burn some sage.
Bad spirits. Travel on the wind. But its ok just make sure they dont have anything thats precious to you.
Because then theyll always b able to find u.
Sarah shivered. She knew Leila was teasing her, but at the same time couldn’t help wondering if the residents of the Goblin Kingdom played by the same rules as djinn. As far as she could tell, at least, the goblins and their king had no power over her unless she started making wishes…
She texted back. Yeah Im OK then. Wind must just be loud over hear cuz of cracks in windows. Or Im losing my mind.
Another pause. Then, U want me 2 come over?
Sarah started to type a joking “no” and then stopped herself, remembering the strange goblin and Didymus and Hoggle’s uneasiness. And that woozy feeling that the children’s song had inspired. Probably nothing, all of it, but still…
Yeah could U? I’m stupid I know but just a little freaked out over nothing.
On my way.
Sarah wondered if she had ever loved anyone as much as she loved Leila in that moment.
It would be something they could laugh about at school next week, at least. She went back to the kitchen as the wind continued to howl, getting the popcorn package from the pantry. Out of habit she glanced over at the baby monitor…
…and screamed, dropping the package on the floor.
Toby was in his crib, his body bathed in a lavender-tinted glow on the monitor screen. But all around the edges of the crib Sarah saw movement, dark shapes that could have been hands, or snakes. The darkness slithered and rippled around the crib, and a strange, static-like noise came through the monitor.
Sarah ran up the stairs and pulled out her phone to frantically text Leila as she ran, ignoring the likelihood that she would trip and end up with a concussion. Okay long story but there is bad thing here and I think I know why plz bring whatev U can sage holy water I dont know—
She flung open the door to her parents’ bedroom, switched on the light, and ran to Toby’s crib, where he was still sleeping peacefully. There was nothing else in the room, and the only sound was the continued howling of the wind, which seemed to be growing stronger, and her own ragged breathing.
Sarah turned in a slow circle, forcing herself to breathe more slowly, counting to three for a breath in, three for a breath out. “You’re not welcome here,” she said quietly. “I didn’t summon you. I didn’t wish for anything. You have nothing that’s mine, and you have no power over me.”
“I beg to differ.”
Sarah gasped and spun around. The voice she’d heard had sounded mixed with the wind itself, and what she saw in front of her also seemed to ripple and blow, a black shape that was there and wasn’t, but that slowly became more solid, until a smiling Goblin King stood before her, a cape rippling around him in an invisible wind.
Sarah’s heart hammered into her throat. She backed up against Toby’s crib, where he miraculously continued to sleep. “You can’t have him. I’ll never wish him away again and you can’t have him.”
The king laughed and twirled something in his hand that Sarah couldn’t see. “I didn’t come for him.”
Sarah frowned. “Well…you can’t have me, either…or the silver, or my stepmother’s diamonds, or…what the hell do you want?”
He cocked his head at her, fixing her with a piercing stare. “I’d like to play another game,” he said, his voice mingling with the wind again. “One that I’m not likely to lose.”
“Well, that’s too bad, because you will lose, and there’s nothing you can do to—“
The light suddenly caught his outstretched hand, and Sarah’s words died on her lips.
Woven through the Goblin King’s fingers was the plastic bracelet she’d given Hoggle.
They’ll always be able to find you…
Sarah swallowed hard. The Goblin King loved games, but he also seemed to be inordinately fond of loopholes. Which she could play to her advantage.
“Did you bully Hoggle into giving you that?” she snapped.
He smiled, his body still shimmering slightly. “I convinced him it was in his best interests not to wear it in my presence,” the king said, maneuvering the bracelet between his fingers in the manner that he’d once toyed with crystal balls in front of her. “He didn’t know, of course, that it could be quite useful to me.”
Sarah crossed her arms and tried to make her face look stern. “Not quite sure how. It’d have to be precious to me, right? It’s a piece of plastic. It never even had sentimental value—Hoggle liked it because it was shiny.”
“Ah, you’ve studied. That’s charming.” His dry tone made her want to scream. “It’s interesting how value is defined. This bracelet had no meaning to you, but then you gave it to someone, someone you now care about, and it became a symbol. He laughed. “Mortals do love their tangible tokens of affection.”
Sarah gritted her teeth.
The king sighed. “Still, it wasn’t quite enough. This piece proved to have only limited power…which is why I had a nice chat with Ehrgrad.”
The king held the bracelet up to the light again, where a part of it glimmered just a little more brightly. “You might remember him as the man with the talkative hat.”
“Why would you need to have a chat with—“
Dangling from the bracelet was the ring she’d given the wise man. The ring her mother had worn in The Winter’s Tale, that had, in fact, been quite difficult to part with. Even now she felt a part of herself reaching out for it, wanting to feel that connection to all her mother’s dreams, and her own.
The king closed his eyes as if he sensed her feelings and breathed in deeply. “Yes. It seems I was right about this one.”
Sarah reached out for the bracelet and the king quickly held it just out of reach, looking almost bored.
“Really, Sarah. That would be far too simple, don’t you think?”
Sarah glanced back at Toby, who, miraculously, continued to sleep. “Fine. You’re not here for him, but you’ve got something of mine that you think gives you power over me, or at least gives you an advantage. Can we just set the terms of the game now so I can win and then go back to popping my popcorn and watching a movie?”
The king ran his fingers over the bracelet and the ring in a way that made Sarah’s skin itch. Those are mine, you snake. You shouldn’t be touching them.
“I’m rather weary of games with clear terms, Sarah,” he finally said.
“You would be, given how often you seem to lose them.”
The king smirked. “So many things I can see more clearly now, with these little trinkets,” he said, continuing to stare at the ring and the bracelet. “Things that were only fragments before. Now they’re stories. Fascinating stories.”
Slowly, his eyes never leaving hers, he brought the bracelet to his mouth and ran his lips over it. Sarah felt bile come up into her throat.
“Don’t do that,” she whispered.
He laughed. “I’ll play with my toys however I like, Sarah. Especially when they give me such valuable insights.”
He flicked his other hand and Sarah suddenly saw images of herself dancing in the air, some of them pieces of real moments from her life, but others things she had only imagined. Private things. Her face flushed hot with rage.
“I wondered what a girl like you would be most afraid of. I imagined the usual. Embarrassment at the hands of your peers, or some attractive boy or girl that you were in love with from a distance. Maybe being attacked by a stranger in an alley at night, they do drive that fear into young girls from an early age.”
“But no, what you feared was more interesting.”
Sarah’s mouth had gone dry. She swallowed and tried to make her voice sound more confident than she felt. “So what am I scared of, then?”
The king laughed and began to whisper, sounding for all the world like a multitude of voices instead of a single one. Sarah might have laughed if the sound of it hadn’t been so unnerving.
The pixies' glee enamoured me,
They were as merry as merry could be.
The words were in an unfamiliar language, and yet Sarah somehow understood them. A fine mist of gold seemed to emanate from the king’s fingers, bringing the words closer, letting them brush over her hair and skin.
They held in each hand a gold rope of sand,
To every blue-bell that grew in the dell
They tied a strand…
The gold mist coalesced into tiny threads that snaked around Sarah’s wrists. Her feet seemed heavy, weighted with that same sensation of calm and warmth from before, a sensation that was spreading up and outward to the tips of her fingers.
The king moved toward her until she was backed up against Toby’s crib, his face inches from hers.
“What scares you, Sarah?” he whispered. Shadows seemed to spiral and unspiral in his eyes. “Let’s find out.”
Sarah woke with a start to find herself on the couch, a half-eaten bowl of popcorn on the coffee table. Her laptop screen showed a terrified-looking woman holding a knife above her head as she moved slowly down a dimly-lit hallway.
Relief flooded through her as she paused the movie and reached for the popcorn. Okay, this solo Halloween horror movie viewing tradition may need some rethinking.
When had the dream begun, though? Had she really been talking to Hoggle and Didymus when the goblin appeared? Had she texted Leila?
She reached for her phone to check, but it was dead. Which was odd…hadn’t she just charged it a few hours earlier?
Hoggle and Didymus will know what’s going on, she reassured herself as she headed upstairs to her bedroom. She felt a remnant of that strange heaviness in her legs and told herself that it was just left over from the dream.
“Hoggle?” she said to the mirror. The wind continued to howl outside. “Didymus? Are you there?”
The mirror flickered like a staticky image on a television screen. The image of Hoggle that appeared was blurry.
“Sarah?” His voice sounded garbled and far away. “Sarah, run!”
Sarah felt a cold heaviness seep through her entire body. Not a dream. Not a dream at all.
The image flickered again and then vanished completely. Sarah tried to still the trembling that had overtaken her.
Leila’s words came back to her. Skinny people with expensive haircuts making stupid decisions. Like not leaving the crazy possessed house at the first sign of trouble.
Right, we’re getting out of here, even if Karen will kill me for waking Toby up.
She threw on a thick coat, scarf, hat, and mittens and ran into Toby’s room, digging through drawers until she found a fleece jumpsuit and hat. She ran back to her parents’ bedroom and opened the door…
…to see Toby climbing impossibly up and over the side of his crib.
Time seemed to slow down. Logic whispered that if she ran she’d never reach him in time, but if she called out he might be startled enough to fall.
But logic couldn’t overcome the primal, desperate instinct to grab him, to save him at all costs.
She leaped toward the crib, cursing her body for moving at mortal speed, and felt an agony unlike anything she’d ever known as she watch Toby slowly, so slowly wobble and fall the seemingly endless distance from the crib to the ground.
It wasn’t far. The top of his crib wasn’t tall. But it was enough.
She had expected him to scream as soon as he reached her, to cry out in pain and surprise. But he was completely silent.
“Oh God, oh God, Toby, please, no…”
She cradled him and he felt like a doll, eyes closed, tiny, silent. “Toby?” She pinched his cheeks. “Toby, sweetie, come on, wake up…”
Sarah felt horrified tears pooling in her eyes. “I’ll get you out of here, I’ll get help, let’s go—“
As gently as possible she eased him into the fleece jumper and the hat. He didn’t stir. She pulled her phone out of her pocket but then remembered it was still dead.
Neighbors. Out of the house. Neighbors’ phone.
She took the stairs quickly while still moving as carefully as possible with Toby in her arms, half expecting goblins to trip her as she walked. Nothing came out of the shadows. The house was silent except for the wind, which continued to wail through the walls.
She held Toby in one hand and gripped the handle of the front door in the other—please be all right, Toby, please be all right—
She pushed open the door, bracing herself for a cold blast of air.
The door opened onto the entryway of her own home.
Sarah blinked and rubbed her eyes. She looked behind her: entryway. In front of her: entryway. As if her own body were a mirror.
“No, no, you can’t do this, please, do what you will to me but don’t hurt him…”
She stepped over the threshold of one entryway and into the next entryway, quickly crossing the distance to the new entryway’s front door and opening it…to another entryway. She repeated this two more times before she became convinced that she would never get out of the house this way.
Think. Maybe another doorway? The back yard?
The way forward is sometimes the way back…
She made her way through the kitchen and the living room and opened the door that should have led to the back yard, only to be greeted with another image of her living room.
Panic overwhelmed Sarah. She held tightly to Toby and spun around, feeling as if the walls of her own home were closing in on her.
“Goddammit, what do you want? You didn’t give me any rules, any systems, how am I supposed to know what to do…”
Toby stirred in her arms. Sarah practically sobbed with relief and looked down…
…to see the twisted face of a goblin staring back at her.
She shrieked and dropped the goblin, who somersalted on the floor and quickly tore off the fleece jumper to reveal a collection of rags. The face…there were pieces of Toby in that face…
And then she was overwhelmed with a cascade of memories that felt real, though she knew they weren’t, memories in which she’d never gotten Toby back, in which she’d returned home to an empty house and had never been able to explain Toby’s disappearance to her parents, and they had searched and searched and finally wept and grieved and said that it wasn’t her fault, it couldn’t have been, but she knew in their heart of hearts that they blamed her, and the house had been cold and alien ever since.
And she had known that Toby was alive, but he was a goblin now, with no memory of his other life.
Sarah sank to the floor and covered her face with her hands. “None of this is real,” she whispered. “None of this is real, it’s all illusions, you’re an illusion, none of this can really hurt me…”
She heard laughter and looked down to see those glints of gold circling her wrists. They seemed to glow brighter now, and they pinched, like wire. Laughter and whispers circled her, tiny breaths of air ruffling against her face before everything went black.
When she woke this time she didn’t allow herself the luxury of believing that everything had been a dream.
She was curled on the floor next to Toby’s crib in the darkness of her parents’ bedroom. When she pulled herself up to peek through the slats of the crib she saw Toby in there sleeping peacefully, but the image gave her little comfort.
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, gripping the crib as though it might give her strength. “Take me. In place of him. Whatever this game is, you win…just leave him alone.”
She heard a chuckle. “Whatever are you talking about, Sarah?”
She stood slowly and turned to face the window, where the king stood, much as he had six months ago. He no longer shimmered or appeared insubstantial. His skin gleamed in the dim light of the bedroom, his eyes flashing. She searched for something familiar in his expression—mischief, desire, rage, lust—and found nothing.
She met his eyes. “You offered me something once, and I refused. You lost. You don’t like losing. I’ll take what you offered, and you’ll win, and then we can both disappear.”
His eyes widened slightly, and then he laughed, a long, rich laugh of genuine amusement laced with cruelty that made her shudder.
“Sarah, Sarah.” He shook his head. “That gift was for an extraordinary girl. For this girl, remember?”
He pointed to the balcony windows, which opened slowly to reveal not the darkness of the night outside, but the gleaming light of the ballroom, where an unrecognizable version of herself wandered, lost, as every eye behind every mask turned in her direction. And where the king, resplendent in that blue coat, watched her every move.
She felt herself moving toward the tableau, remembering that feeling of being something, someone that fascinated people, not just people but adults, adults who would confirm that she was no longer a child, that she should be taken seriously in their world.
She felt the king come up behind her. “Yes, you wanted that so badly, Sarah. You wanted to feel magical…to feel extraordinary, that you had a whole room of people under your spell…”
“But…” She could feel the pleasure in his voice when he spoke. “You’re not extraordinary, Sarah.”
The image in the balcony windows shimmered, and Sarah saw herself transforming, becoming the version of herself that she so often saw when she looked in the mirror—small, terrified, unremarkable. An object of pity and idle curiosity. The dancers in the room ignored her or chuckled at her behind their masks.
She jumped when she felt the king’s hand on her cheek. He turned her face toward his, his expression genuinely sad. “Yes, I see it so clearly now, where before I might have been blind.” He patted her head. “You are utterly, completely, tragically ordinary.”
His words hit her like a series of slaps. Her hands shook, and she backed away from him. “You’re playing with me,” she whispered. “You’ve seen what I fear, and you’re just using it against me…”
“Am I?” He smiled and produced a crystal, holding it close to her face. “Fears are based in truth, Sarah. They’re never entirely irrational, not in your case. You feared losing your brother, and you did almost lose him. You dream of being extraordinary…”
She saw images in the crystal of a sylph-like being, all smooth movements and flowing clothes…
“…like your mother, like the goddesses you worship on stages and on screens…”
The sylph was her, tall, delicate, charismatic, surrounded by admirers…
“…but no, Sarah. That is not you.”
Again she saw a version of herself as she had always imagined she looked to others—small. Hunched over. Invisible in a passing crowd. Moving through life with no real aim or purpose, making and doing things that no one ever noticed, pitied by a few casual acquaintances but never loved, admired, or desired by any of them.
The images swirled around her and settled on her skin like a wet, heavy layer of oil. “You’re ordinary, Sarah. Everyone sees it, even you.” The king smiled. “”Your mother saw it as well, of course. That’s why she left.”
Sarah felt little stabs of pain all over her body, felt herself crumpling but forced herself to remain upright. It’s not real. None of it is real, it’s a game to him, and he only wins if you believe…
…but the images felt so real, and not far from the truth, and in a way it was a relief to give in, because she’d fought against this fear for so long…maybe if she surrendered to it it wouldn’t be frightening anymore…
As if in response, the gold threads around her wrists burned more brightly and tightened. They looked like veins, like her body was absorbing them.
The king shook his head. “This is far too easy, really. You’re such a wellspring of different fears, Sarah. I wonder which one we should explore next?”
He reached out to run a finger down her cheek, his other hand twirling a strand of her hair. “Do tell me, little plaything. Or shall I choose for us? I’ve got an eternity, and your mind is an absolute feast of—“
They both froze. The king blinked, but his calm expression returned quickly.
“Sarah?” Footsteps on the stairs. “Door was open, lucky I wasn’t Karen, she’d kill you…”
The king smiled and gripped her chin in one hand. “Who’s that?”
Sarah’s mind raced toward a half-dozen lies she could tell, but the king’s eyes pierced her like needles, and she felt words rush out of her. “Leila-my-friend-I-texted-her-earlier-I-was-scared.”
He nodded. “Tell her you’re in here.”
No, no, please, not her, don’t—
But that rush of desire to speak overwhelmed her again, and Sarah found herself calling out in a chipper voice, “I’m in here! Just checking on Toby.”
The king smiled and whispered in her ear. “Be the actress you’ve always dreamed of being, Sarah, because while I’m not so interested in cutting you into small pieces and feeding you to your brother…yet…the same might not be true for your friend.”
Sarah stifled a scream. The footsteps came closer until Leila was silhouetted in the doorway of the bedroom, looking slightly out of breath and carrying a large backpack.
“Brought extra popcorn, laptop full of movies that are most definitely not scary, and—“
She registered the sight of the Goblin King, who, though Sarah would never have thought such a thing was possible, was casually leaning against the wall.
“Good evening,” he said, sounding for all the world like an average person.
“Evening.” Leila laughed. “Sarah, you could’ve mentioned that you had company.”
Sarah felt a manic prickling along every inch of her body and laughed in a way that she hoped didn’t sound like sobbing. “I wasn’t really expecting him. But he’s here now!”
“So he is.” Leila pulled a scarf out of her bag and wiped her face with it, then reached out a hand toward the king. “I’m Leila.”
The king bowed and took her hand. “So pleased to make your—“
The next moment happened so quickly that later Sarah could never quite recall how it had played out. One minute Leila seemed to be shaking the king’s hand, and the next she was rapidly tying the scarf around his throat, and the scarf was wet, and it made a horrible sizzling sound. And another horrible sound came out of the king’s own mouth, a cross between a gurgle and the keening of a dying animal. He reached up to pull the scarf away from his throat but his hands sizzled when he touched it, and the sound he made was so loud that Sarah covered her ears. His body seemed to shimmer, becoming less substantial.
But Sarah suddenly felt lighter, and the fog that had surrounded her for most of the evening seemed to lift. As her mind cleared she could hear Leila shouting.
“…bracelet, Sarah! Get the bracelet!”
Sarah saw that her bracelet was glowing a bright white against the king’s wrist. She grabbed at it and cringed as she felt something soft and wet stick to her hand, but she yanked the bracelet easily off, making sure that the ring was still affixed to it. She gripped it tightly, and the gold threads that circled her wrist flickered and snapped into pieces, and she cried out in pain, because it felt like something was being ripped from inside of her. But then the threads were gone, and the fear with them.
Nearby Leila was speaking words in an unfamiliar language that seemed to enrage the king further. His body was shimmering more and more, but his voice still rang out clear.
“You think to defeat me with potions and trickery, you insect?” he spat, snarling at Leila like a feral animal.
Leila kept her eyes on the king and pulled a bottle out of her bag. “Yeah.”
The king snarled again and lunged at Leila, but Sarah grabbed his cloak, and in that split second Leila uncorked the bottle she was holding and splashed its contents at him while speaking more unfamiliar words much louder than before, and the king screamed extremely detailed obscenities at both of them that made Sarah wince.
And then the room was full of smoke and a terrible smell and that awful sizzling sound, and then…nothing. Except for a large water stain on the rug.
Leila was breathing raggedly. Toby, miraculously, slept on. Eventually Leila turned to Sarah, gave her a half-smile, and pointed at the rug.
“We’re gonna need some club soda.”
Toby’s breaking point, it seemed, was the sound of Sarah and Leila cleaning up the rug. When he woke up and started to cry Leila went to his crib and rocked him gently as Sarah soaked up the liquid on the floor with bathroom towels and then sprinkled it with club soda.
“This stuff is sticky.” Sarah wiped her hand on her jeans. “Is there anything in it that’s, uh, toxic?”
Leila kissed Toby’s forehead. “Not to us. Water, salt, iron filings, date syrup…”
“Hey, this isn’t an exact science.”
Sarah sighed, scrubbing at the carpet. “This might take a while.”
“No, no, Leila, oh my God.” She stood up and gripped her friend’s shoulders. “You saved me. And Toby. Screw the carpet.” She sighed and gathered up the wet towels. “How…how did you know?”
Leila placed a mostly-sleeping Toby back in his crib. He protested only a moment, and Sarah couldn’t help but wonder if Leila’s gifts extended to soothing babies. “That last text you sent me made it clear something was up, so I threw some stuff in my bag before I came over. Wind practically blew my car off the street when I got closer to your house.”
“‘Threw some stuff in your bag?’ You just had this stuff lying around?”
Leila gave Sarah an appraising look. “Suffice it to say I’ve got a history with supernatural assholes.”
Sarah laughed. “Yeah…suffice it to say this isn’t the first time a supernatural asshole has threatened my brother and made me hallucinate.”
Leila smiled. “Well. Glad we got that out of the way, then. I’d been wanting to tell you.”
“God, I’d been wanting to tell you so badly.”
Sarah stood up and went to Toby’s crib. She wasn’t sure if she could leave him any time soon.
“Did it start when you were a kid, too?” Leila asked
“No. Six months ago. And just the one time, and the one…creature.”
Leila raised an eyebrow. “So I’m like a black belt at this and you’re a total noob.”
“Does it make sense if I say I never, ever want to become a black belt at this?”
Leila sighed. “Yeah. it does.” She went to the doorway and waited. “Shall we look for some industrial-strength carpet cleaner before your parents get home?”
Sarah lingered by Toby’s crib. “Is he really safe now?”
Leila touched the bracelet that now circled Sarah’s wrist. “I think so. Creatures like your king love games, but they don’t like to lose. Now that he’s lost twice I imagine he’ll go off and sulk for a few decades, which will feel like a few hours to an immortal.”
Sarah stroked Toby’s blond curls. “He made me think Toby was dead. Or that I hadn’t rescued him, that he was a goblin now…”
Leila grimaced. “Yeah, that sounds familiar.”
“And he said I was ordinary. Nothing. And it felt real. Like everybody knew it, except me.”
Leila reached out and squeezed Sarah’s shoulder. “You really believe that?”
Sarah sighed. “I don’t know. He made it feel real. And he said fears are based in truth.”
Leila snorted. “Yeah, well, you’re still here, and he just got beaten by a girl with a wet scarf. Maybe don’t put much stock in what he says.”
Sarah laughed and felt a bit of weight lift from her shoulders. Leila pulled her away from the crib and toward the door. “Now. Carpet shampoo. And then maybe a horror movie and some popcorn.”
Sarah’s jaw dropped. “Seriously?”
“I’m feeling generous. Don’t get used to it.”
Sarah smiled and squeezed her friend’s hand. “I won’t.”