I wish to never wake up with nightmares anymore.
Though Bobby hated nightmares, it was his mother who prompted him to make this wish.
"You're a big boy now," she told him, mussing his hair.
Yes. Yes, I am, Bobby thought, contentedly clutching his brand-new, balloon giraffe.
"And you know what that means, don't you?"
No, he did not.
"It means no more nightmares. Big boys don't have nightmares."
Ever since his father had left, Bobby had dreamt that his mother would leave, too. He searched for her through unending hallways and windowless rooms and even in the alphabetized parking lot in which he had lost her last Christmas. The tall man had saved Bobby then. A Salivation Armyman, the boy remembered, with his bell and red pot. The Armyman had talked to Bobby and held him by the hand until the tears dried and his mother was found, shaken but relieved.
"Just dreams," his mother had sighed each night as she held him in her bed until he slept once more. "I'm right here." But now Bobby couldn't wake in the middle of the night and run to her. Bobby was a big boy and big boys don't have nightmares. This worried Bobby.
By the time the cake was paraded out to the sounds of an enthusiastic attempt at Happy-Birthday-to-Bobby, the boy had prepared a plan: he would simply wish the nightmares away. And this he did, smiling brightly at his mother as the five candles went out in wispy, whirly plumes of smoke.
Cake was consumed and in the flurry of presents that followed Bobby forgot all about the nightmares he would no longer be having. He was only slightly sad when no wrapped package contained the floppy-eared rabbit for which he had pleaded. This disappointment dissolved quickly in the laughing faces of a leering clown and a dozen gleeful guests. In fact, Bobby was quite content through the rest of his birthday party and into the evening. By the time his mother came to put toys into closets and Bobby into bed, he was ready and yawning. "It's time," she said.
Bobby dutifully dressed himself for sleep and nestled under the covers, waiting patiently to be tucked in.
"You're such a big boy, now," Bobby's mother reminded him. She leaned in to kiss his forehead and said, as always: "Good night, my darling angel." As always, Bobby smiled and soon, Bobby slept.
* * *
BOBBY. The boy stirred. BOBBY, WAKE UP. He opened his eyes slowly. Had someone called his name? BOBBY. Again: A raspy whisper that seemed to come from everywhere at once. Bobby sat up in his bed and looked the room over. Fresh presents littered the floor, casting dim silhouettes of super-powered action figures and Fisher-Price fire trucks against the wall in the orange incandescence of a soothing night-light. Bobby's favorite overalls hung over the back of his brick red desk chair. ‘That stain will never come out,' Bobby remembered the words his mother had said when she saw the mud and grass frosting their front.
Everything was as it should be... except that the bedroom door was closed. Bobby never closed his door. Maybe his mother had closed it?
Standing, Bobby went to the door. As he reached his hand to the knob ― just to check if it's unlocked; not to open it like a little, scaredy-cat boy ― he heard the voice again:
BEHIND YOU, BOBBY. The boy turned and his night-light winked out. The room was dark now; just a little moonlight through the window, but in the far corner Bobby noticed a shape: a darker shape. A crouching shape. Bobby backed into the door. Banged his head on the knob. Didn't care.
Who're you? The words wouldn't come out.
HELLO, BOBBY. Its eyes gleamed red as they took the boy in. And took him in they did. Bobby was frozen with fear. He'd never had this nightmare. I'VE COME FOR YOU, BOBBY. The shape rose and started toward the boy.
Bobby's fear melted away and was replaced by arid terror. He reached quickly for the doorknob behind his head, turned it and for a heartbeat feared it was locked. It wasn't; it opened. Bobby ran through the door and pulled it closed with all his weight. After a moment, as he heard no signs of movement from inside his room, he opened his eyes ― had he shut them? ― and released the door.
Bobby looked around. This isn't the hallway. Well, it almost was. It was darker now. Darker and longer. It must go a mile, thought Bobby. A mile is a long way. Avocado-green paint was bubbling and peeling from the grime-caked walls. Mildew crept oh-so-slowly across the ceiling. No more carpet, just rotting, stinking grasses under Bobby's socks. He could feel the wetness creeping through the once-clean, once-white cotton.
'It's only a dream, my darling angel,' his mother would say when Bobby woke and all would be okay. But right now all was not okay. Despite his wish, Bobby was in another nightmare. To make it end Bobby had to find his mother.
But where is Mommy? Bobby thought as he slowly started down the hall. He wasn't scared, he told himself; he was a big boy. A few steps and the boy found a light switch, flipped it on. An ooze-covered bulb in the ceiling flickered once feebly before flashing and shattering with an electric Pop!
Despite the dark, Bobby continued down the crooked hall, determined to find his mother, but watching the drifting shadows warily. No telling what might be in them.
At last Bobby came to the door to his mother's room. Long gouges scarred the wood. Three of them, side by side. They looked like claw marks. Bobby chewed his lip a moment before trying the knob. Locked. He yanked and pulled and tugged. The knob came off in his hand. Dropping it, Bobby pushed at the door. Nothing. He knocked. Again, nothing. He shouted for her: "Mommy?" Waited a moment, then again: "Mommy!" Bobby pounded the door with his fists, tears threatening to spill from his eyes. She said she'd never leave.
Sobbing now, Bobby sat down hard, back against the door. For a while he just sat, feeling the tears slip down his pudgy cheeks and drip onto his favorite pajamas. The Superman ones, with the cape that his mother said he couldn't wear to bed. She didn't want him to sufflicate ― 'that means choke,' his mother had explained gravely.
Now she was gone.
No. I can find her. Bobby stood. I can be a big boy for Mommy. Wiping the tears with the sleeve of his pajamas, Bobby looked around. It was dark. And dirty. He didn't like this house. He didn't like it at all.
Bobby was sitting in the middle of the hall. To his back, Mommy's door. To the right, his bedroom and those burning eyes. To the left, the hall continued. That must be the way.
Sniffling slightly and still tasting salt on his lips, the boy stood. He started down the hall, away from his mother's locked door and away from whatever lurked in his own room. On and on the hall went, monotony broken only by the bits of rubbish that littered the floor: rusted out lamps and pots; broken tables and bits of chairs; sticks and stones and a dead rat. Bobby stepped over the mess, inch by inch, until he heard the faint sound of laughter. He followed the sound down the hall to a doorway. Peering through, Bobby saw a room beyond.
This used to be the living room. That festering lump of cushions and stuffing had probably been a couch once. The walls were gone though; there were only trees now. Sad trees with raggedly bent trunks and branches which droopily joined overhead to block out the sky. The grasses here gave way to muddy pools of fetid water and swarms of glowing fireflies.
There, in the middle of it all, stood a clown. He wore a filthy, three-piece suit that may once have been checked in red and white and yellow. His face was smeared with as much soot and dirt as poorly applied grease paint. On his feet were enormous shoes, scuffed and torn in places. The clown pranced about the murky clearing, laughing happily as he caught glow bugs in gloved hands and squashed them between his fingers.
As Bobby entered the room, the clown stopped his prancing and stood silently a moment, staring the boy down. Then he sputtered and erupted into laughter once more.
Just as abruptly the clown ceased his merrymaking and tipped his hat to the boy. It was the kind of hat that magicians wear, but this one was ragged and worn. The band was in tatters and the brim was bent and torn. "Hello, my boy!" the clown pronounced around a smile, when Bobby said nothing he continued: "Don't be scared, my boy. It's just a dream."
Bobby stood in the doorway, hands clasped behind his back, brows knit, chewing lip. He was not at all sure if his mother's rule about not talking to strangers applied in dreams.
"I'm Oscar, my boy. Oscar the Clown." With that, the clown curtsied low and smiled wide to reveal row upon row of rotted-out teeth and a bloated, black tongue. Bobby cringed, but tried to remember: it's just a dream.
"I'm B-Bobby," the boy stammered, tentatively stretching out one hand in greeting. "Please to mee'chu." The clown giggled loudly. Why is he laughing? Bobby thought he had introduced himself the way his mother taught him. Perhaps he had done it wrong.
"I'm looking for Mommy." Oscar hooted harder; Bobby said it louder: with more insistence: "I need to find Mommy!"
"I don't know Mommy," Oscar chuckled, shrugging his shoulders and scratching under his hat. The clown wore a bald cap. Stringy, gray hair sprouted through in places where the rubber had ripped. "Is that her only name?"
Bobby thought hard. Daddy said ‘Karin' sometimes. "I think her other name is Karin."
Oscar clutched at his sides and guffawed. ‘ Karin,' he mouthed, falling into the mud, writhing helplessly and splashing muck all over Bobby and his Superman pajamas. When the clown had calmed, he struggled to stand and brushed mud from his clothes before offering: "I don't know any Karinses, my boy, but perhaps this will help?" Oscar pulled a black rubber balloon from his ear.
Magic. Bobby timidly took a step forward, keeping his hands behind his back. 'It's silly to be scared of dreams,' his mother always said. But he was anyway.
The clown blew raspberries into the balloon noisily. Tying off one end, he began to twist and turn the inflated rubber deftly. In a moment he was done; he winked at Bobby, holding out the shape. The balloon was now a kitten.
Smiling now and less scared, Bobby took the proffered balloon-kitty in one hand and petted it with the other. 'Softly, Bobby, softly,' his mother always reminded. The kitten moved, nuzzling its black rubber head against the boy's hand. It purred, making a sound like two balloons rubbed together.
While Bobby admired his new pet, Oscar pulled a long, rusty needle from one drooping sleeve. Holding the sharp sliver of metal gingerly between two fingers and grinning slyly, Oscar stabbed at the kitten. The deflating balloon phttt'ed off.
"Now, isn't that better?" Oscar teehee'ed as he tossed the needle away. "Best medicine, my boy. Laughter'll cure just about anything. Bruised knees and rainy days and..."
"It doesn' cure finding Mommy," Bobby replied. Or Daddy.
"Oh." Oscar almost looked disappointed for a moment, then he brightened: "Alright, how about this?" The clown beckoned to the boy with one gloved hand and removed the hat from atop his head with the other.
Kneeling, Oscar held out his hat. "Hold that for me, my boy. I'm gonna need both hands for this one." The clown winked at Bobby, who regarded the dark interior of the upturned hat, curious. The clown stood and began carefully rolling up his filthy sleeves. "Now, watch closely, my boy," Oscar reached one lanky arm into the hat. Wrist deep at first, feeling around. Hmm, nothing there. He reached further in, up to his scab-covered forearm. Still nothing. Oscar feigned a look of concern. Perhaps the magic was failing. Shaking, the clown tried to suppress laughter with tightened lips, but it came out anyway in hisses and grunts.
Oscar dug deeper. He was into the hat to his shoulder now, rummaging about until: "Ah-ha! Here we go, my boy!" When the clown withdrew his hand Bobby saw that he was holding a rabbit.
The creature did not look well at all. Its fur had probably once been white, what remained was manged and mottled brown and gray. There was blood smeared across its face and one ear was torn clean off.
Holding the hare high by the scruff of its neck, the mirthful clown laughed hysterically. He dropped the animal into the mud and it limpingly moved toward Bobby. Before it had gone far the clown lifted one oversized shoe and brought it down on the pitiful creature. Bobby heard a squeal that ended in a crunch. The clown tittered delightedly and Bobby recoiled in horror.
"Stop it!" he shouted at the clown fists clenched at sides. Oscar looked at the boy seriously, or tried and failed. The straight face he made was quickly interrupted by a new bout of giggling. The boy was on the verge of tears. They welled up wetly, blurring his lucid view of this dream.
"Don't worry, my boy," Oscar chuckled, lifting his foot to reveal only mud. "See?" The injured rabbit was gone. "No harm done; just magic." The clown gave Bobby a wide, rotten-toothed smile. Bobby calmed down, but he realized that although this clown looked like a grown up, he was no help at all.
Before he could think what to say next, the fireflies flickered and went out. Dark. Just as suddenly, the clown was silent. No more laughs. No more chuckles or titters or guffaws.
"Where's the lights?" Bobby asked.
"It took them."
"Don't just stand there, my boy." No time to laugh. "Run!" Oscar took off awkwardly, loping through the marsh in his enormous shoes.
Bobby followed as best he could on his little legs. Then the voice: IT'S ME, BOBBY. DON'T RUN. Startled, Bobby stumbled and fell in the dark. Stubbing his toe, bruising his knee, losing his breath. Bobby felt the dark coldly fingering at his back. There was something there, but Bobby didn't look. He rose and ran faster, or tried, but tripped and rose again. On and on he went until he was covered in mud and scrapes and prickles. Bobby fell one last time, his feet caught in some unseen sinkhole. He lay, coughing out the fetid water that had found its way into his mouth, too tired, too sore to move. So he lay still, hoping it would pass. Hoping the dark would pass and the shape and those eyes.
And they did. Off in the dark Bobby heard Oscar laughing. Laughing in fear. ‘No,' the clown laughed. ‘Please! Don't!' And then silence.
* * *
'It was just a dream,' his mother would say. 'Don't be scared . . . '
But Bobby was scared. He sobbed silently in the dark. He wanted to wake and run to his mother's room and her comforting arms. But it didn't end and Bobby kept dreaming. This was worse than Bobby's first day of school when his mother had left him with no more than a hug and a ‘be good, my darling angel'.
The fireflies slowly began to reappear: organic constellations swirling and swooping above the muck. With them came the sounds of the forest. Boughs creaked as trees sighed their relief: " it's safe... " Chirping crickets passed the word along: "... it's gone." In the distance, the warbling wail of an answering bird: " it's over..."
Bobby had fallen in the midst of a dense swamp. Crooked trees crowded around the boy, their bark painted with swatches of brown moss and green slime, their gnarled roots clutching at the muddy ground. From above, faint starlight filtered through rotted leaves and the tangled branches to which they clung.
As the boy searched his surroundings he saw an orange light winking through the trees. On. Then off. Then on again: this time to stay.
Soaking wet and covered in mud, Bobby stood. The boy looked at his filthy hands, trying to brush the muck off onto his filthier pajamas. 'What a mess,' his mother would say, 'time to draw a bath,' but she never really drew anything.
The bath would have to wait. For now, Bobby started toward the light, winding his way through bent trees and around puddles of darkly still water. When he was almost there, when he could nearly see the source through the trees, the light went out. A second later, it was on again and Bobby stepped into another clearing. This one was made up of three greasy walls and a flaking linoleum floor all smeared with crusty, brown filth. Bobby was in a kitchen, complete with range, dishwasher and tiled counters.
There, in the middle of it all stood a corpulent cook, bent over, investigating the contents of an open refrigerator. The fridge stood propped against the far wall amidst a pile of pots and pans, its orange glow soaking the tiled space.
As Bobby entered the kitchen, the cook smiled wide, scratching under her hairnet with one hand and ashing her cigar with the other. Sweat dripped from her face, shining in the light, and dampened her clothing. When she stood, the cook was as tall as the fridge and a bit wider.
"Hey, kid." The voice was a gruff man's voice, and it took Bobby a moment to realize it had come from the cook. "Wha'chu need, kid?" She puffed at a cigar and wiped her hands on her apron, adding another set of prints to the already greasy cloth. "You hungry?" The cook took a ragged teddy bear from the fridge by its single ear and turned from Bobby. She moved slowly, laboriously maneuvering her bulk across the kitchen floor to the counter where she tossed the bear.
Wiping dry tears from his face with the back of one hand, Bobby took a step into the kitchen. The boy was hungry but he didn't think this kitchen made anything he would like. One look into the open fridge confirmed this assumption. Fuzzy, gray mold covered most everything. A number of flies picked at a bowl of fruit, once juicy and sweet, now blackly misshapen and festering. More bowls, filled with grubs and maggots of varying sizes. On the top shelf, the remains of a Raggedy Anne doll: no arms, dress torn, hair charred, one eye missing, the other lazy.
Despite his best efforts, Bobby felt the tears well up. He just wanted to find his mother. He tried his hardest to fight them down, but they must have shown because the cook asked:
"What's eatin' you, kid?" She reached down to tug at her sagging stockings. "You tell Cookie all about it."
"I los' Mommy," Bobby explained tearfully.
"Sorry to hear that. You eat somethin', you feel better," The huge woman took a bloodied cleaver from its hook on the wall and raised it high. "Let Cookie fix you a snack." At home his mother would make ants onalog ― but they weren't ants, he knew, they were raisins and they taste better than ants.
Cookie worked from a different cookbook. She brought the knife down and the teddy's head plopped to the floor. Bobby jumped. Another chop and a stubby tail joined the head. The cook lifted the bear by its hind legs and sliced it longways. The matted stuffing burst from sliced seams onto the counter. Flies buzzed. Bobby wrinkled his nose and closed his eyes trying desperately to remember that it was all just a dream. Wake up, he told himself, but nothing happened.
"I need to find Mommy," he insisted, eyes still shut. Tears leaked from Bobby's eyelids. His lower lip crept out, quivering threateningly. 'Big boys don't cry,' his mother always said, but Bobby did.
"Don't cry, kid." Cookie opened the oven and tossed in the gutted bear in. The door clanged shut. One heavy step, two heavy steps and Cookie was before Bobby. She patted the boy's head, adding droplets of sweat to the tears on his face. She smelt like Uncle Chuck. Like smoke and medicladed creams ― 'for his joints', his mother had explained, embarrassed but amused.
"Kid, I don't know no Mommy's. But . . . "
But . . .
Cookie smiled hopefully, leaking cigar smoke from nose and mouth: "But maybe my Auntie can help you find your Mommy?"
Bobby looked up at the kind cook. Maybe? Cookie went on, "Auntie's at the library," she pointed over Bobby's shoulder back into the wood and stood, returning to her culinary preparations. She snatched a bowl of writhing insects from the fridge. Tasting a few noisily, the cook dropped a handful onto a heated griddle. They sizzled. "You should find her. That's the grown up thing to do." Bobby turned, staring back into the swamp.
Smoke seeped from the oven but Bobby didn't care. Cookie's Auntie. At the library. Cookie's Auntie was going to help Bobby find his mother. The foul-smelling smoke stung Bobby's eyes. Made him cry more.
Cookie was at the fridge, rummaging about. Her muffled voice came from the chilly appliance, "sure you don't wanna stay, kid?" Bobby glanced over his shoulder at the cook. She found what she needed and stood, one hand on the fridge's door. "I'll fix ya somethin' nice." Cookie smiled, swinging the fridge door shut. The light went out.
No more Cookie.
No more smoke.
Just an unlit kitchen. And then the voice: BOBBY . . .
Bobby, Bobby, Bobby. The boy hated the way his name sounded in that hissing voice. YES, BOBBY: STAY. From the trees the darkness spilled as the voice whispered inside Bobby's head. STAY. I'LL FIX YOU NICELY. There: the eyes. Bobby remembered those gleaming eyes. They glowed, boring into the boy. Watching, waiting, whiling.
Bobby ran to the fridge where last he saw the cook. He reached the grimy, plastic door. Cookie was gone. Bobby turned. "Go away!" he shouted. Thinking frantically: Where's Mommy? "Wha'd'yu want?"
REMEMBER YOUR WISH, BOBBY? YOUR BIRTHDAY WISH?
No more nightmares. Like a big boy.
SILLY BOBBY. THAT'S NOT THE WISH. The dark wheezed a laugh. YOU WISHED TO NEVER WAKE.
"Leave me alone!" Bobby turned to the fridge, grasping its handle, and flung the door open. Orange light thawed the dark.
Bobby screamed. The darkness was gone and Cookie was back. But Cookie wasn't moving, laying face up in a pool of lazily spreading blood. Bobby's legs collapsed and he sat down hard. The cook's thick throat had been ripped apart. A look of supreme horror was stamped upon her face: eyes wide, mouth wider. Bobby stared. Terrified. He was too frightened even to cry. He just sat and held himself, shaking from head to toe, repeating in his head the soothing words of his mother: 'just a dream, my darling angel. Just a dream.'
But where is Mommy? Lost. Maybe lost forever.
No! Bobby stood. He wouldn't lose her, not like he lost his father, and not here. He just had to be strong. That's what his mother had said in a half-remembered, white room where his father lay abed and tubed up tight. Bobby's father wasn't well then: pale and thin and smiling without teeth. 'Be strong,' Bobby's mother had told him. 'Be a big boy for Daddy and dry those tears.'
Bobby tried so hard to be strong, but the tears came and Daddy left anyway. Then the nights were darker and the days were dimmer. His mother was dimmer, too. If only Bobby had been a big boy then... but he wasn't strong enough. He couldn't even open the strawberry jam until his mother loosened the lid.
Maybe he was stronger now.
I'm a big boy now, Bobby kept telling himself. That means I'm not scared of nightmares. But Bobby was scared. He edged his way around the kitchen, back to the counter, as far from the corpulent corpse as possible. He couldn't tear his eyes from the gored body. One of Cookie's hands clutched at her wounds, trying to stem the flow of blood. No use. Beside her other hand, a fallen cigar was slowly burning a black hole through the linoleum flooring. Bobby closed his eyes tightly and hurriedly ran past the body, into the forest once more.
By the light of the fireflies, Bobby picked his way carefully between bent trunks. Bark scratched, roots threatened to trip, mud sucked greedily at stockinged feet, and Bobby wandered. He would find the library. He would find his mother. On and on he went, hugging himself tightly against the cold and the damp. This is forever, thought Bobby. On and on. No library. No Mommy. Just the trees.
With each step, the threat of tears loomed larger and larger over the small boy. With each step Bobby told himself, big boys don't cry. And with each step Bobby realized that he wasn't a big boy. Not yet.
Bobby sat down in the mud. Tears obscured his vision: he could not go on. All he could do was sob to himself. The tears came quickly now, clearing saline trails in the dirt and grime that covered his face; dripping torrentially into the swampy muck that was beginning to seep through Bobby's pajama bottoms. It was all too much. This was the worst birthday Bobby had ever had.
At length, the tears ran dry. Bobby wiped his eyes, now puffy and red, with a muddied sleeve. Crying doesn't help. He had to think. Bobby stood and looked around: Trees. Trees. Trees in every direction.
Somewhere in all these trees was the library. Bobby had to find the library in order to find his moth . . .
"Who's there?" Bobby stopped and started. Nothing, just breathing. Bobby's breathing. No: there it was again. Bobby held his breath and listened, straining to capture every last sound: the trees creaking lazily, a small cloud of gnats buzzing insistently and . . . Yes, there it is: slow, ragged breaths.
ONLY ME, BOBBY. It's back, the whispering voice inside Bobby's head and all around it. WHERE'S MOMMY? The boy ran. He did not want to end up like the cook. Or the clown. NO, BOBBY, DON'T RUN. Outstretched branches tore at Bobby's pajamas and scratched the skin beneath. SUIT YOURSELF, BOBBY. RUN. Malicious mounds of roots snagged at Bobby's feet. RUN AS FAST AS YOU CAN. YOU CAN'T ESCAPE.
Can't find Mommy . . .
Bobby saw a dark shape slinking through the trees directly ahead. Eyes wide, Bobby turned the other way. I'M THERE, TOO, BOBBY. And it was, prowling in the darkness. Bobby froze, looking frantically through the encircling wood.
The frightened boy could hear it rustling through the underbrush. Could see its movement from the corner of his eye, slowly circling, always just out of sight, but stalking closer.
DO YOU LIKE THIS DREAM, BOBBY? There: that darker shape.
I just wanna wake up!" Bobby shouted into the darkness, frustrated and furious, fists at soggy sides.
BUT YOU CAN'T WAKE UP, BOBBY. YOU MADE A WISH. Over there now: crimson eyes glaring from the mass of twisted trunks.
"I take it back." And once more, louder this time for good measure: "I take it back!"
YOU CAN'T, BOBBY. THAT'S WHY BIG BOYS NEVER WISH ON BIRTHDAY CAKES.
"I just wan'ed to be a good boy." A big boy. Bobby tried to explain himself, turning to face the stalking creature but catching only glimpses. "For Mommy." And for Daddy.
The voice laughed. Bobby cringed. Such a horrible sound. YOU WILL NEVER BE A BIG BOY, BOBBY.
You're wrong, Bobby thought defiantly, but by now, he had doubts. How could he be a big boy if he couldn't even find the library? If he wasn't even strong enough to find his mother? Lost his mother like he had lost his father. So careless.
A big boy would think of the grown up thing to do, but all Bobby could think to do was run. So, he ran. Away from the nightmare. Away from whatever followed.
YES, BOBBY, GO TO THE LIBRARY, the voice chased after him. GO FIND MOMMY. AND WHEN YOU DO ― slowly, the taunting words faded away ― I WILL BE RIGHT BEHIND YOU . . .
As the boy left that awful voice further and further behind the ever-present pools of murky water slowly receded and the ground dried out. The tangled roots that had caused Bobby to stumble so often sunk into the soil, in their place sprouted pitiful shrubs full of thorns. The branches overhead opened enough to let in a smattering of cold, blue moonlight.
The trees began to change as well. Their gnarled and crooked trunks straightened and grew taller. Looking up, Bobby traced the woody columns with his eyes until they swayingly tapered off into the darkness. He could hear wind whispering through the unseen boughs above. Sounds like voices, thought Bobby.
" What's this?" the breeze breathed slowly.
" Just a boy . . . " came the answer. The wind picked up as many murmuring voices considered this information.
" A boy?" they mused. " He's so small. Is he lost?"
"Who's there?" Bobby looked around for the source. He saw only wispy runners of mist peeking from the darkness between the trees, coiling and roiling restlessly.
The intoning trees continued their gossip, ignoring Bobby's question. " Why so scared?"
" Yes," the others wondered, " why?"
"... only a dream.. ."
" Lost his mother." There were many voices now. Bobby could understand only bits and pieces of their conversation through the jumble of whistling words.
" Poor thing," the wind sympathized, "... just terrible."
"Where are you?" Bobby asked louder, desperate to be heard as the noise increased. Fingers of fog crawled slowly from behind the trees, clutching at the ground, closing in on the boy, carpeting all in fuzzy mist.
With the fog and rising wind came gnawing cold. Soaked and muddied, Bobby's Superman pajamas clung to his skin. He hugged his chest to stop his shoulders shivering and clenched his jaw to stop his teeth chattering.
"Kin you help me?" Bobby asked shakily, but the trees only whispered amongst themselves. "Why won't you talk to me?" Wind coursed through the treetops as more voices joined in:
" Where's his mother?"
" . . . doesn't know . . . "
" . . . just dreadful . . . "
" . . . must be so scared . . . "
" . . . must be so lonely . . . "
" . . . should go to the library . . . "
" Yes, the library!" A chorus of windy voices approved of this idea. " . . . Grown up thing to do..." There were so many now that Bobby couldn't understand a single word.
"Shut up!" The boy shouted, but the sound only increased. The fog was thick now, Bobby saw as he turned, trying to find someone, something, at which to direct his frustration. But there was no one. Nothing. Just a grove of silhouettes.
The trees said Bobby should find the library. Cookie said Bobby should find the library. Even the shape and those eyes said Bobby should find the library. But: "I can't fin'it," he admitted to the trees, sobbing.
Suddenly, the whistling wind quieted.
" . . . Doesn't know where it is," a single moaning voice breathed.
" Can't find it?" The wind rose to a roar as the trees hollowly howled their astonished surprise. Bobby saw the trunks swaying and heard them creaking through the thickening fog. Far above, unseen branches clattered against each other.
Bobby covered his ears but the din was only dampened. He shut his eyes and screamed. Still no use. For several minutes it sounded to Bobby as though he stood in the midst of a terrible storm.
Slowly the winds moved on. The clacking sound of banging branches decreased. The trees stopped their swaying. Through his plugged ears Bobby heard a single arboreal voice:
"... Right in front of his nose," and then nothing. No more wind. No more whispering trees.
Cautiously, carefully, Bobby removed the hands from his ears. It was absolutely silent. Just as carefully, the boy opened his eyes.
To be continued . . .
Look for the conclusion in the October 16th issue!