By Patrick Firth
On the night she saw the goblin, Valerie had decided she could no longer put up with her mother. She had been strangling an old doll, tears streaming down her face, mouthing slow down, slow down over and over again in a silent scream. That was until she noticed a small, wizened face, staring at her: needle teeth and thin lips, sunken eyes surrounded by deep, shadowy creases, warty nodules like tree knots on its hairless skull. Her fingers relaxed and the doll’s head flopped to the side. The pinched little face moved closer to hers, yellowy eyes not meeting hers, but rather following the path of her tears to where they collected on her chin. One rough finger reached out to catch one of the drops on a cracked nail. She shuddered at the contact. The goblin placed the drop on its tongue and its smile deepened, splitting its face. Eyes rolled back into its head, and then back down to her face again.
It tried to collect another, but this time she slapped away its hand.
“Hey,” the goblin repeated in a breathy gurgle. It did not appear to be upset by her chastisement. The goblin kept its hand by its side, and contented itself by watching the salt trails down her cheeks.
“Valerie!” her mother shouted. They both jumped. Valerie looked over at the crack of her door.
“What are you doing in there? We don’t have time to be dragging our feet tomorrow because you were goofing around in bed tonight.”
Time, Valerie thought. She did not know what other purpose her mother served other than filling all her time with stuff she didn’t want to do. Her mother timed everything with that infernal stop watch on her phone, and reminded Valerie every time she threw the schedule off. She commented on everything that Valerie did wrong in minute detail, but, in the same breath, tell the parent beside her at the dance class, swimming, piano, singing, how perfect her little Valerie was.
“I’m trying to sleep, Mom!”
“Sorry, I’ll go to sleep now,” she said. Her mother would get her tomorrow for that slip. Valerie turned back, expecting to see a spindly finger reaching for her tears again, but the goblin was gone. The lights were dim and water blurred her eyes. And she was upset. Her mother was sitting in the living room with her silent father, concocting some punishment that would be completely unreasonable, just because she got a little frustrated that her mother was trying to make her into some disgusting princess and was controlling every second of her life. Why did she even exist? You go dance, sing, play piano, Valerie thought. Your dreams. Not mine!
She mouthed the last as a silent scream into her pillow again, drool in ribbons between lips and pillowcase when she pulled away.
Something had to change.
The next day Valerie had to put up with her mother screaming and cursing as a man attempted to negotiate his car into his driveway on Riverside.
“Stupid! Why does he even have a license? The man is eighty.”
Hardly, Valerie thought.
“My whole schedule,” Mother fumed, checking the stopwatch on her phone every five seconds. Valerie counted.
“You won’t catch me driving at that age. Maybe your chauffeur will drive me around.” She had the briefest of smiles, and her eyes glazed for a moment. Then, she was back dealing with the old man and his car. Her mother leaned on the gas pedal and took the car into the other lane, forcing a very surprised woman to slam on her brakes.
If you don’t drop dead of a heart attack first, Valerie had thought.
That night she dropped into bed, exhausted after dance and homework. Her twenty minutes ‘free time’ and organic dessert had been taken away because of the attitude from last night. Valerie was on her comforter, debating whether or not to get into her pyjamas when the pinched little face appeared, hovering above her own. It grinned and pointed at her eyes.
“I’m too tired to cry tonight,” Valerie whispered.
The goblin looked disappointed for a moment, and then gave her a quick, painful, pinch.
“Ouch, hey,” she hissed. “Stop it, I’m not going to cry
The goblin clicked its teeth together.
“Don’t you dare bite me. You want to see someone cry, get really pissed off? Come with my Mom and me on our way to piano lessons. Especially if something gets in her way.”
Valerie closed her eyes, too exhausted to care that the little face was still over hers. She felt another pinch, but that was right before she drifted off to sleep.
Valerie had forgotten about the goblin until she saw a small army of them lining Riverside Drive. Unfortunately for the goblins, traffic was smooth and her mother did not have to deal with any obstacles. One threw a stone and it dinged off the windshield.
“What the hell?” Mother said.
Valerie looked back and saw the group of goblins jumping up and down, laughing, and patting each other on their backs. Valerie smiled.
“What’s so funny? You want to pay for a new windshield?” Mother snapped.
“I didn’t think so.”
Judging by the looks on the other drivers’ faces, they could see the goblins. Valerie’s mother hadn’t. How could you miss them?
That night, Valerie once again fell into bed, though feeling buoyed from the goblin’s stone and their joy at her mother’s frustration.
No goblin though. Or, at least not that she could see. She stayed up, watching the shadows in her room, the cracks and the crevices, for the little yellow eyes. They never appeared. She still fell asleep with a smile.
“Do you not see them?” Valerie asked the next day on their way to swimming lessons.
“Don’t stop and look when you breathe, Valerie.” Her mother droned on with a continuous list of swimming lesson tips. “Breathe to the side. And don’t do the breast stroke. It is unseemly for a lady like you. But don’t you worry about that. I will talk to your instructor about it.”
“Mom, don’t you see them? Are you listening?”
“What are you talking about, young lady?”
“I’m not a lady. I’m a girl. And don’t you see the whole pile of them up there?” Valerie found herself not caring about punishment or screaming. Thoughts of the loss of free time and dessert faded, replaced by a certain coolness she had never felt before. Coolness. That was the only word she could think of to explain it. Part of the feeling may have inspired by the two giant heaps of goblins that were on the either side of the road. A thick, ancient looking rope was strung between them, heavy across the asphalt.
“Oh,” Valerie smiled, though her heart started to beat and her stomach felt like it shrunk to the size of a pea. “Sh-”
The piles of goblins fell in opposite directions, and the rope came to life, snapping taut right in front of the car. Valerie grabbed the handle above her head. She heard a squeal but the car had ploughed right through the rope like it wasn’t there. Her mother hadn’t flinched. Not at the rope anyways.
“Did you just?” Her eyes had gone cartoon wide. “Swear?”
Valerie whipped around to see the state of the goblins. The piles had exploded, the rope dragging behind the car like a boat’s wake. Some of the more tenacious goblins still held on. They were laughing, rolling around clutching their paunches. That must have been the sound, she thought. The mad delight of hundreds of goblins, all laughing and screaming at once.
“Swearing,” her mother continued, still watching the road as they bumped over the rope and left the goblins behind. “I can’t believe – You are in so much trouble.”
“What are you going to do, pull me out of swimming? Dance? Piano? How will I ever be famous?”
“You must be getting this from the little hooligans you hang out with at school. I’ll pull you out of there and teach you myself.”
“Okay, Mom,” Valerie laughed. She would never do it. What actress, model, dancer, singer was ever home schooled? The hit to what her mother thought was her “popularity” would be too much.
That night, after the frosty silence of the car ride home, Valerie had the most free time she had ever had. Her mother yelled at her dad most of the night. The lack of attention was too beautiful to pass up. No stopwatch. No critiques. No reminders of tomorrow’s itinerary.
Valerie drew goblins on her math homework, their spindly bodies capering through the numbers and division signs. She crammed the papers into her backpack, and then grabbed the chips out of the forbidden cupboard. She flopped onto the couch, sinking into its depths with remote in one hand and open chip bag in the other. She flipped to the channel that she was not allowed to watch and turned up the volume to drown out her mother’s voice.
Two hours later, mystified by the shows about cops that had come on, Valerie got ready for bed. Her mother’s voice was cracked, and grew quieter. Valerie could even hear her father’s baritone responses every so often. She brushed her teeth and washed the chip grease off her fingers. She grabbed one of her mother’s style magazines to read in bed.
Before getting under her sheets, Valerie went to the window and pulled up the blind. Hundreds of yellow eyes caught the backyard light. They were still, but she could see that they squinted with the grins underneath. None of them looked at her. They were riveted on the kitchen and her mother’s exhausted fury.
Somehow, Valerie was comforted by all those goblins out there, even as she considered what her mother was going to do to her tomorrow.
If she had seen the goblins the past two days Valerie was certain that her mother would not have chosen Riverside Drive again. Valerie was glad she had though, and was looking forward to whatever the goblins were going to do next.
“We are going to take you out of piano.” Valerie sighed. “You really aren’t that good at it anyways.” Her mother looked over at her. “Look at your fingers.” Valerie did not. “We need time to fit in your new counseling appointments anyways.”
“Finally, someone will listen to me.”
Then she saw them. Or rather, she first saw their disguises. Webbed feet over knobby toes. Black heads on long, curved necks swaying above them. Valerie knew it was them because, in spite of the costumes really not being very good, they kept on poking their heads out of the breasts of their Canada Goose coats. When the goblins caught sight of the car they all started shuffling onto the road, heads poking out as the car continued to barrel towards them.
“What?” she said.
She slammed on the brakes.
“Where the hell did they come from?”
Valerie looked behind as they started to reverse.
“They’re behind us too.”
Her mother’s face turned red. She put the car in neutral and revved the engine.
“What are you going to do? Kill all the gob – geese? Just to get there on time?”
“No!” her mother screamed. She slammed the wheel with her hands, cursing the geese and the people who let them take over the road.
“Look at yourself,” Valerie yelled back, wrenching the rear-view mirror over so that her mother could see. Half the goblins had forgotten about their costumes, and were now chortling at the show in the car. “You’re having a tantrum. They’re geese. Deal with it.”
Surprisingly, her mother did. She looked in the mirror and stopped.
“Breathe, Mom. Just breathe.”
And she did. Her mother looked over at Valerie as if she weren’t there, but could still hear her voice. She breathed. She shifted the car into park and looked straight ahead. She breathed.
“Are those?” her mom said. “Are they even geese? What are those things?” Valerie caught herself feeling a moment of pride for her mother. Even though she was seeing the gnarled goblins in the midst of the detritus of their disguises, she was calm. Something had snapped, or switched, in this moment. And because of it both Valerie and her mother watched the goblins aimlessly wandering away, bored with the calm that had taken over the car.
Valerie sat and matched her breath to her mother’s, and thought that maybe there was hope for the woman after all.