by Lisa Gordon
I woke up to goblins in my backyard. At first, obviously, I thought I was dreaming. So I went back to sleep, and when I woke up again, there they were. I thought they would have gone back to wherever it is that goblins come from. I had to look it up, what they even were – I could never remember the difference between goblins and vampires and demons and all that. Goblins, technically, are “legendary evil or mischievous creatures, grotesquely evil or evil-like phantoms.”
So I was like, great.
Issue #138 soundtrack: Bunk “Hatch”
I called my sister Maggie, but she didn’t answer. I called James. “There are goblins in my backyard,” I said.
“Cool,” he said. “Do they bite?”
“Like I’m going to stick my hand out the door and find out?”
“Want to come over?”
“I do,” I said, “but what about the goblins?”
“They’ll be fine.”
I went over. When I got back, they were still there. I peeked through the sliding door, timid. It looked like they were just teeming around, moving around each other in empty, patternless circles. They didn’t make any noise. That night I slept with the light on and a baseball bat by my bed. I figured I would have trouble sleeping. But it was the best freaking night sleep of my life.
In the morning, I wanted to thank them. They were the first things on my mind when I woke up. What were they going to look like in daylight? But they looked pretty much like what you’d imagine a grotesquely evil thing would look like. Like a small man-like figure with squat, round shoulders and big, bulbous, ugly features. They didn’t wear clothes and didn’t appear to have private parts. Like the kind of villains you’d see in movies aimed at middle school boys with zits and changing voices.
I called Maggie. “Are demons genderless?”
“Yeah,” she said. I could hear chopping in the background. Maggie watches all those movies about all those things. The vampires and demons and things. She likes being scared. I don’t. She has four kids, two of whom I think she might regret. “Demons are definitely genderless.”
“Shit, no, I mean goblins.”
The chopping stopped.
“Oh,” she said. “I don’t know.”
“I have some in my backyard,” I said. “I’m looking at them now. I don’t think they make noise.”
“Hmm. What do they eat?”
I stopped. I looked around my kitchen, with its avocado-colored fridge from the 70s and the peeling cupboards. I’d moved in four months ago, and I still had boxes lying around. “I’m supposed to feed them?”
She didn’t say anything. But it was like she was saying, “God, Roxie, everyone knows that.” I was in the slow group in school. Maggie, of course, was not. She was salutatorian, and I think it’s haunted her her whole life.
“Seriously,” I said. “Am I supposed to, like, keep them alive? Is this my responsibility?”
“Jesus, Rox. I don’t have time for this. But for God's sake. Maybe they chose you or something. Ever think of that?” Then I heard her cry out at one of the kids. Then I heard a click.
I hung up the phone wondering why she was defending the goblins. We used to be close, for, like, one month when I was in fifth grade and she was in eighth and someone broke her heart, and she was content to watch cartoons and eat Pop-Tarts with me all day. Once she even went to the mall with me and helped me pick out blue hair dye, which I never used because by the time I was ready to, she’d gotten over her heartbreak. I basically never saw her again until she moved home from college and did a bunch of drugs in the basement and then emerged to announce she was getting married to the man she’s married to now, Gary, who’s actually quite nice. If I’m honest with myself, I guess I moved into this crappy apartment to be near her.
I went to look at the goblins some more. I brought out one of my kitchen stools and sat by the window and just watched from behind a carefully placed curtain. They moved around and around and around my little backyard. Just around and around and around. Small twitches, purposeful steps. There were seven of them. I almost called Maggie again because isn’t seven supposed to be an evil number or something? But I didn’t. I wanted them to look at me, but they didn’t. But I think they knew I was there. I mean, they must have, right? Especially if they like, chose me?
I sat there for a long time. I almost called James again and Maggie twice more, but I thought to myself, no. Be alone (with your goblins). Practice being alone. Maggie was pretty much the reason I’d moved away in the first place – “You spend too much time with me and the kids, and it’s annoying. Get a life; try your own thing” – so I had my company transfer me to Philadelphia. It was either that or Tampa, and I’m not much of a sun person. But being in Philly was just like being here, except even more lonely and in an uglier office with worse food. Plus no James, who, for a fuck buddy, is at least reliable, and sometimes that’s all you need. The traffic was better, though. That’s what everyone said when they talked about whether or not they liked Philly. “At least we’re not on the Goddamn GWB/Zakam/whatever, idling away, wasting our lives!” my co-workers would say on Tuesday happy hours, clinking their sherries and Bud Lights in huddled spaces in cold bars. I looked out the window, waiting for snow, and sipped my Jim Beam quietly, which I told anyone who asked that it was brandy.
Now I poured myself some and decided I would test them. Half a tumbler, three ice cubes from a fancy tray Gary gave me last year, and some dinner zapping away in the microwave, I turned on the TV and opened the curtain, just slightly. I turned off all the other lights in the house so I was illuminated by only that purple, hazy glow. Sometimes nothing else is more comforting than that glow. And as weird as it sounds, with the goblins out there, I felt safe.
I must have fallen asleep because I woke suddenly with a start and thought: The goblins!!! as if something terrible had happened to them, and suddenly I was alone again. I sat up straight and peered out, and what do you know, there was one peering right back at me. We let our gazes settle on each other. I didn’t know what to do, so I raised my hand up slowly, I suppose to say, hi. Or, thank you. Or, are you hungry? Or, what’s your name? It was too dark to see the goblin’s reaction, so I just sat there for a while with my hand stupidly in the air, until I felt the goblin and I had had a meaningful moment, and then I went to bed. All night I dreamt that I was a young Drew Barrymore in a more modernized version of ET.
I woke up the next morning, Saturday, to an expansive, sunny day and nothing to do. I hate weekend days with nothing to do. Especially sunny ones. It’s like everyone else is out having a totally amazing time, riding in cars with the sunroofs open, cracking open beers on brick patios, and I’m all like, bored. The thing is, I’ve never been much for friends. I’ve had a couple here and there, but I don’t seem to get along well with people. I went to a therapist once, at Maggie’s insistence, for two months, and by the end of it he was convinced I was agoraphobic, which I’m not.
“Mags,” I said when she answered the phone. “I’ll come over, and we should have a BBQ. I miss the kids. It’ll be fun.”
“It’s barbeque,” Maggie said. “Pronounce the whole word. I hate it when you do that.”
“Barbeque,” I said. I was still in bed, my legs up against the wall, my mirror leaning against the door, unhung for months now.
“We can’t. Ronald has a soccer game.”
“Can I come?”
“You can,” she said and sighed a little. “But I think you should try to find something else to do, you know? It’s been four months, Rox. And not much has changed.”
Even though what she said hurt a little, her voice was comforting. I began to cry a little bit but hid it from her. “Okay,” I said in my most upbeat voice. “No problem.”
“I’ll tell you what,” Maggie said. “We don’t have anything on Sunday night. We’ll come over for dinner. All of us. Okay? And you should cook, Roxie. Or bake. And I hope those boxes are cleared away by now. You know Annie tripped last time.”
I used to cook a lot. My specialties were gruyere and broccoli soufflés in the morning and lamb burgers with homemade tzatziki sauce for lunch. There was a time when Maggie was coming over for lunch every day, and then sometimes for dinner, when she and Gary were going through a rough patch. We drank luxurious cocktails with twists of grapefruit and talked about the world in ways that made it seem more manageable.
“Okay,” I said, looking around at all the boxes. She hadn’t been over practically since I’d moved in. I had a lot of work to do.
Then we hung up, and I realized she hadn’t asked me about the goblins.
I went to the window and watched them. Maybe it was just my angle, but I swore they didn’t look the same. Or maybe just weaker. Their circles were getting smaller, like there was less space between them when they moved around one another. Their movements were twitchier, too. I went downstairs to get a better look, and that’s when I noticed the grass. Small patches of it, circular patches – dried up. They dotted the lawn like the fabric on a girl’s party dress. I didn’t know what it meant, but it had to mean something, and I feared it was bad.
Oh my god, I wondered, am I killing them?
I picked up the phone to call Maggie again and then hung it up before it rang. Instead, I went to my computer and Googled “what to feed goblins,” but all that came up were the rules to a game called Pathfinder.
I was on my own.
I started with the cabinets first, but since I don’t cook much, all I had were a few cans of chili and boxes of stale crackers. In my fridge were some dying carrots, beer cans, leftover pizza, and ketchup.
Fuck, I thought. I was beginning to feel frantic.
I called James. “If you were a goblin,” I said, “what would you eat?”
“Ummmm. Sugar. Like, lots of it.”
“Ohhhh, sugar,” I said. “Right. Thanks!”
“Rox–” he said. “About tonight –”
“I don’t know about tonight,” I said. “I’ll have to see. I’ll call you later.”
Saturday was our night. Sometimes I felt like it was the only thing I needed to get me through the week. But now there were other things on my mind.
I got my clothes on, threw on some flip flops, and opened the curtain. “I’ll be back soon, guys,” I said. “Hang in there.” I was almost out the door when I thought better of it. I put the stale crackers on a plate and put the plate on the inside of the glass door. I was testing them, I guess.
The grocery store is a magical place, is it not? It had been so long since I’d been for the sake of food. Just the remarkable wonder of food. I’d been planning the meal for Maggie and the family on the car ride over. Pork roast with balsamic glaze reduction, frisee salad with homemade cilantro lemon dressing, and scallion biscuits. I held the cold pack of meat in my hands and felt inspired; the bouquet of scallions were more beautiful than ever. And then it was time for sugar. If you’ve ever wondered what kind of sugar to feed a gobin, I’d love to hear what you came up with. Because I wandered those aisles for what felt like hours. I couldn’t decide between packaged, processed sugar like Chips Ahoy and Oreos, or store-bought cake mixes with thick frosting, or just plain sugar from a box. So I bought it all. I bought it all.
At home, the afternoon had spread itself through my apartment in fragile light. I dumped the groceries on the floor. I couldn’t wait to see what had happened to the plate of crackers. Much to my surprise (or, not really – wasn’t I expecting it?), they were gone. Well, almost. One of the goblins was half in my house, half out on the patio. Crumbs hung from his mouth. The others were outside, but closer to the door than before.
“No, no,” I said, shaking my finger toward the goblin’s face. “Not those!”
I watched his face, for what, I’m not sure. Something human? But what I saw, I’ll never know. All I know is that it sparked something in me. I ran back into the kitchen and procured one of the boxes of cookies from the jumble of grocery bags lying about. I walked back in and handed it to him. The goblin didn’t take it. Just stared at it. So I ripped it open and spread them out on the plate, and then went back into the kitchen to keep myself busy. I made a big show of opening cabinets and slamming the fridge door with a force. I unpacked everything as quickly as possible so I could get back out to see what they were up to. But I didn’t need to. Soon I heard a noise behind me, and there they were, two of them this time, standing somewhat timidly in the doorway of the kitchen. The plate wasn’t with them, but I knew the cookies were gone. They stood there, their twitches visible, waiting.
“Hold on!” I cried. “Hold on, guys.”
I tore open the box of Oreos and put them on the floor. They ate whole sleeves at a time. Popped them into their mouths like snakes snoveling a mouse (Maggie would say, snoveling is not a word, but I’d say, so what?). I tried not to look too closely at them. I didn’t want them to be uncomfortable.
They weren’t very good sharers. The Oreos were gone in a matter of moments, and from what I could tell, the other goblins were still outside on the patio, probably starving. I ripped a Sara Lee cake from its packaging and slipped by the goblins to go out and feed the rest. The others had begun approaching the door and were in various stages of coming inside, except for one, who lagged behind considerably. He was inspecting the wooden frame around the door.
“Here,” I said, putting the cake down on the ground right in front of the door. “Help yourselves.”
They stared at it for a moment and then descended upon it like wolves. It was fascinating.
The mistake I had made soon became ever more clear to me because back in the kitchen, it was chaos. The two goblins had torn through nearly everything in the bags and were now taking turns gnawing at the meat I’d gotten for Maggie’s dinner, holding it in their hands, which were really more of claw-hand hybrids.
“HEY!” I cried. “Hey! That’s not for you!”
They looked up but didn’t listen, of course. And then I don’t know where I got the courage, but I stuck my hand in between their mouths and ripped the meat away from them. It was room temperature and fell apart a little in my hands. They stared at it hungrily and then me. One of them snapped at my fingers, but it was over so quickly, I didn’t even realize that’s what was happening. I guess it’s naïve, but it hadn’t occurred to me until then that they might want to eat me. I grabbed up as much food as I could into my arms and threw it out onto the patio. It spilled out into the backyard, where I noticed the circular patches had grown bigger.
“Go!” I cried, sliding open the door as wide as it would go. “Go on!” It didn’t take them long to follow the food, and they filed back outside like dutiful pupils. I stood there and watched, counting them, wide-eyed. I would have scolded them, but how? And maybe I’m crazy, but I swear the last one, the shortest one, hung his head a little as he passed me by, ashamed of what is anyone’s guess.
Back in the kitchen I was a frenzied mess. I hadn’t been gripped by panic like this since my last attack before I moved. But at least now I had things to do. The meat was ruined – I’d have to get something new – but much of the other food that remained in the bags was salvageable. Unfortunately, one of the boxes of sugar had spilled everywhere, and my kitchen floor looked like a bare sandbox, the kind that skinned your knees badly if you skidded and fell, which I did, three times. So by the time the doorbell rang, I was bloody and sweet all over.
“What the fuck is going on in here,” James said, his face alight. “What happened to you!”
“It’s the goblins,” I said. “I’m baking. You were right – they like sugar.”
James inspected me like a doctor. He pulled my hair around, lifted my shirt, and pressed his ear against my chest to hear my heartbeat. He kissed the top of my head, held me close, and whispered, “Did they hurt you?”
“No,” I said, not telling him about the near-bite. I wrangled free of his arms.
“Then why are you all bloody?”
“They tore everything apart in my kitchen. Sugar spilled everywhere. I’m cleaning. And baking so they’ll have more food. And I need to cook. Maggie’s coming over tomorrow, and –”
“This is nuts,” he said. “Let me see them.”
I led him to the back porch. Despite trash from the food lying about, they were back to their normal habits – teeming around each other in circles. Even the grass was back to normal. Plush and green, perhaps even greener than before.
“Oh,” I said. “Well, that’s weird.”
“They look harmless to me. What really happened in here?”
I looked at James. Suddenly he wasn’t good-looking after all, and his eyes, always big and blue and serene, were making me nauseous.
“I have too much to do,” I said. “If you’re going to give me a hard time, you should go. I don’t have time for us tonight.”
“You don’t have time for us tonight?” he said. “Because there are goblins in your backyard?”
I looked from him to the goblins. “Yes,” I said matter-of-factly. “And Maggie. I have to get ready for Maggie tomorrow.”
“Saturday is our night,” he said.
“You can help me bake!” I said, getting excited again. I went back into the kitchen and drew open some of the cake packages I’d purchased. “You could make the icing! We did that once before, remember? And you liked it, remember?” I began pulling out my mixing bowls and measurers. When I turned back, he was gone.
I had even cleaned up the house. All the boxes were unpacked and everything was in its right place. I dusted and vacuumed and re-arranged. I swept and wiped and bleached. I even ran out to the store again, after feeling confident that the goblins were finally asleep, to get another pork roast. It was the right decision, for when I returned, nothing had changed.
Then Maggie called in the morning. “Fuck, Rox, I forgot,” she said. “I forgot about the goblins.”
“No, it’s fine!” I said, my voice frantic. “They’re fine!”
“I can’t bring four kids over to play with goblins. Gary won’t allow it.”
“It’s fine!” I said, peering through the curtain, keeping my voice low so as not to disturb them. “They’re placid. They’re placid like a sea.” When she didn’t say anything, I went on. “Please,” I said, “just come.”
I took a quick nap and then took to the kitchen again, preparing the most elaborate, gorgeous meal I’d prepared in years. Even my fancy china, freshly unpacked from my night of chaos, was ready for use, and I set out the seven plates carefully. Everything was coming together, and after artfully arranging a vase of tulips on the table and setting out tumblers for the kids’ milk, I allowed myself a glass of wine and sunk into the couch, my goblins sated and idle, and settled in to wait.
Lisa Gordon is a writer and editor from the Boston area. She has been published or has work forthcoming in Paper Darts, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Hypertext, SideReal Magazine, Eleven Eleven, the Rumpus, BelleSF, and others. For more, visit gordonlisa.com.
Corey Pandolph is a former Minor League Baseball mascot and NYC-based cartoonist/illustrator for the New Yorker, MAD Magazine and Adirondack Life. His work has been internationally syndicated in newspapers, featured on screen for Comedy Central and graced fine cocktail napkins across Manhattan. Currently, he is trying to write his first comic book based on his first unfinished crime novel. Mr. Pandolph lives with his wife, Kristen and one white husky, Lulu. He also plays mediocre blues guitar and enjoys building things out of trees when he can. Visit him online at coreypandolph.com.
Bunk's recently-released sophomore album, Citrus Sucker, was written and recorded bi-coastally by David Skelly and Michael Sokol (in Northampton, MA) and Brett Long (in Los Angeles, CA), who have been creating music together since middle school. For more, follow the band on Facebook and Bandcamp or visit bunktheband.com.