Goblins and Good News
When Alex woke up, he thought about what the Monster had said in his dream.
What was the best gift he had?
He sat up and looked around his room.
Marble run, suitcase full of matchbook cars, a gorilla that was bigger than he was… many, many, books… action figures, all of his stuffies…
Before he could decide which was his best gift, Mom arrived with her hands on her hips, asking him what on earth he was up to, because it was time to get ready for school.
Monsters of Morningside
While Alex and Linden were cramming jackets and back packs into their cubbies, Alex gave him the news: "I can only play with you if I follow every single rule all day long, and no coloring." After that, whenever Alex's hand strayed to his crayons, Linden thumped his own desk, and Alex came to his senses and clenched his fists in order not to color. Somehow Mr. Fine never turned around quickly enough to catch sight of the thumper.
(Incidentally, Mr. Fine did actually tell the class to color, right before reading time. His instructions were to color the objects on a worksheet: orange pumpkin, red apple, yellow sun.)
Thus, while Linden got away with all kinds of fun right next to him, for Alex the moments labored by like a donkey pulling a wagon through mud.
Without doodling, Alex's hands felt like they were made of mud. Soon the feeling spread to his whole body, which sank lower and lower into his chair. He felt as though there were sandbags attached to his eyelids.
With nothing to do all day but listen and follow directions, Alex had time to notice that unlike him, Linden was doing quite a lot of rule breaking. For instance, his hoodie had pockets into which one hand would dip while someone else was getting into trouble, and emerge with a single jewel-colored pellet that he'd pop into his mouth. He'd also smuggled a comic book to his desk, hidden inside his spiral notebook. Alex saw him poring over it during math. When Mr. Fine asked the class a question, away went the comic book, up went Linden's hand, and he delivered the right answer. To top it off, he kept a double-thickness of paper in front of him, and was surreptitiously drawing. He had a creepy ability to sense when Mr. Fine's sharp, narrow eyes were about to dart in his direction. All he had to do was shift the top paper slightly to cover his doodles.
They were at half-mast when a sharp whack on his spine caused him to pop up like a jack-in-the-box, and everyone giggled. Mr. Fine was standing over him, ruler in hand, not smiling.
However, the school day did eventually come to a very boring end without Alex breaking one single rule. A feeling like a sunny summer day opened up inside of Alex: he'd done it! Mr. Fine had never even spoken his name, not once!
Joining all the other kids scurrying around putting the classroom back in order, Alex elbowed Linden as they passed each other, and then at the cubbies Linden elbowed him back. Grins were exchanged. All of the kindergarteners slid back into their seats, the bell rang, and they made a more or less orderly line at the front of the room. Mr. Fine opened the door; Alex and all the other kids streamed into the hallway. Alex matched Linden's ponderous footsteps until they reached the half-way point, when they both broke into a sprint for the front doors.
"Alex Hollow!" a grown-up shouted. Alex slowed down so abruptly that his back foot tripped over his front foot and he toppled to the floor.
When he got himself upright again, he could not see Linden any more. He kept stretching his neck and hopping up and down, trying to catch sight of his friend. With every hop his heart bumped lower and lower, until it was in his belly.
He was going to miss his play date with Linden.
His eyes were starting to sting when Linden's ghost-pale face popped out from between two sets of third-grade shoulders right in front of him. "There you are. Come on! That's my mom." Linden pointed with one hand and grabbed Alex's elbow with the other.
Mrs. Lighthouse was very tall, blond like Linden, and neat. Her pewter-colored car was like a warehouse on wheels. She opened the door to the second row of seats, and Linden climbed in, trundling past an impressive plastic contraption that sat in the middle.
Strapped into it was a goblin.
Linden leaned forward to smile evilly at Alex and say: "Alex Hollow, meet my Baby Sister. She bites." Then he laughed like it was the funniest thing in the world.
"Linden Lighthouse," Mrs. Lighthouse's sharp voice cut through the gale as she swung into the driver's seat, "Rule number two: we are not unkind."
Her eyes found Alex's in the rear-view mirror. "You should know, Alex: when Linden laughs that way, it does not bode well."
When the creature saw him, it squealed and thrust out tootsie roll fingers that wiggled and groped.
But Linden's house was much, much bigger than Alex's. The mud room just inside the door to the garage was the same size as Alex's bedroom. It had its own bench, cupboards, shelves, coat-hooks and cubbies; also a boot tray, a pail full of firewood, and a twiggy broom, which Alex kept staring at while taking off his coat and backpack. It looked like a real witch's broom.
On the way to Linden's house, the Baby Sister Goblin made so much noise (woo-woo-woo, bee-bee-boo, doe-dee-doo) that Alex and Linden had to shout to hear each other. Nevertheless they established that while Linden had one sister, no pets, two cars, a big house next to Morningside Forest, and twenty-three rules, Alex had no sisters or brothers, a cat named Blacky who lived outside but sometimes came in to sleep in front of the fireplace, two cars, a big house next to Morningside Forest, and about ten rules (Alex thought; his list was taped on the wall next to the bathtub and was very blurry).
A pudgy little goblin with tiny, beady eyes and a baby mushroom nose, squished between pasty cheeks, a wrinkled forehead, and a mouth so red it gave Alex the shivers. On top of this horrible head sat a mass of curly, black hair.
Linden's eyes twinkled as he helpfully took Alex's things from him and stowed them in a cubbie. When Mrs. Lighthouse set the Goblin down, it squealed, threw off a sparkly pink jacket and boots and some other sparkly things, and ran into the spacious hallway, arms flailing. Mrs. Lighthouse bent to gather up the detritus.
Meanwhile Linden reached for the twiggy broom. "My dad made this," he said. "Wait 'til you see—"
One of Mrs. Lighthouse's long, ivory hands intercepted her son's grasp. "Linden, why don't you show Alex the Art Studio?" Deftly, she steered the two of them out of the mud room. "Keep quiet; it's Jordan's nap time. Remember the rules."
Art Studio? Alex followed Linden down a wide hallway, past a powder room of puzzling grandeur and a cavern of a kitchen, to a staircase leading down. From there they took another hallway, which was dark, except for a dim, blue glow coming from the seams around a door to the right.
Dramatically Linden turned and put his finger to his lips; Alex sealed his mouth shut. Together they tip-toed right up to the door.
"Sh. Listen," Linden whispered. Alex listened. He became aware of a soft whirring sound and a series of high, quiet tones, like a robotic bird-call. Very gingerly, Linden took hold of the knob, gave it a twist, and shrugged.
"Locked," he said, still whispering. Then he continued down the hall. "It's always locked."
Linden's Art Studio was the size of a garage. It was very orderly. Along the walls were banks of shelves full of jars and bins and stacks of paper. There was a big sink, and in the middle of the room a wide, low table with several stools. Yellowish light came from a sliding glass door that showed shady, gold-speckled woods. Alex went to the door and stood there for a long time, looking out at the lavender shadows and drifting leaves in rain and sun. Behind him, Linden clattered around getting things from the shelves.
"Hey!" said Linden. "Come on: you draw, I draw."
Alex turned around to find his friend flapping a huge sheet of paper at him. Alex scurried to the table, and his jaw dropped. There were two jumbo tubs full of crayons and markers. Alex got on his knees on top of a stool, grabbed a bright blue crayon, and drew a pair of tilted eyes with a line between them. He looked up and saw that Linden was not yet impressed. Above the eyes, Alex drew a second, purple pair. Then he drew an oval around all four. The effect made him shiver. Linden laughed and snatched the paper.
Linden made a project of creating hairy eyebrows that crossed in the middle of the four eyes. Alex drew a curvy trunk of a nose and squiggly antennae. Linden made electricity crackle between them.
Alex forgot all about being good and school and Mr. Fine. Linden made a path through what was becoming a maze full of fantastical creatures. When the page was full, Linden said: "I know: we can invent!" He brought a fresh sheet of paper to the table. "Like my dad. What are you going to invent?"
Alex asked: "What's invent?"
Just then Mrs. Lighthouse appeared in the doorway, with a laptop in one hand and the Goblin in the other.
Linden sprang up. "Mom, no!"
Mrs. Lighthouse settled herself into a grown-up sized chair. "I'm on a deadline; I will be right here with my headphones." She opened her laptop. "You are to play nicely with Alex and your sister for the next thirty minutes."
The Goblin traipsed to a bank of shelves and pointed up high. "Pay-doh!"
Linden made a growling noise.
"Rule number eight, young man," said his mother, and donned the headphones.
The Goblin hopped up and down, still pointing. "Lin-in! Get it!"
Alex asked: "What's rule number eight?"
Linden sighed heavily. "We do not exclude others."
"Pay-doh! Get it!"
"Exclude?" said Alex.
"It means leaving people out," Linden explained, grabbing a step-ladder and dragging it to the shelves. He lowered his voice as he retrieved a plastic canister and climbed down, holding it out of the Goblin's reach while she jumped around. "Except it really means I have to let my annoying Baby Sister do whatever she wants!" He plopped the canister onto the table. "All the time. Because of rule number one: We follow Mother's and Father's instructions, and Mother and Father always make me play with stupid Jordan!"
"Linden," said Alex seriously, "We are not unkind."
Jordan pried open the canister and shook out a lump of multicolored goop.
"Inventing is making things up," said Linden, painstakingly drawing a rectangle on their new paper. "Except my dad builds the things he makes up."
"He builds them?" A breath of awe moved through Alex.
"Like, machines." Linden was drawing a snaking cord coming from the rectangle, decorated with tiny cross-wise lines.
Alex bounced on his stool. "Robots?"
Linden looked up. "Yeah, maybe!" His eyes got narrow. "Some of his inventions are secret."
Alex wondered about the chirping sounds from the locked room. How would you put together a bird out of machine things? Taking a cue from Linden, he started with a rectangle.
The good times, however, were soon over. Jordan insisted on sitting next to Alex—though she didn't actually sit much. She bounced on top of her stool; she crawled up onto the table and bounced some more; she smudged Alex's inventions with mud-colored play-dough. Finally, she got tired of the play-dough and decided she wanted to draw like Linden and Alex. On their picture. She plunged her sticky tootsie roll fingers into the crayon tub and brought them out with fist-fulls of colors, which she gleefully raked across Alex and Linden's carefully rendered monster maze.
Alex had to keep himself from yelling in anger and dismay. There was a long, silent moment during which Linden, red-faced, looked like he was about to blow his foamy hair right off of his head. But finally he just puffed his breath out. "You are so lucky," he said, "that you don't have a baby sister!"
Fortunately, they only had to put up with the Baby Sister for a few more minutes, after which time Mrs. Lighthouse removed her headphones, snapped her laptop shut and joined them at the art table. Linden jumped off of his stool.
"Can we go outside?"
"Outside!" Jordan peeped.
"Yes, you may." Mrs. Lighthouse's eyes drifted across the pages of bizarre doodles as Linden quickly put away the crayons.
"Outside!" squeaked the Goblin.
"No, sweetie," said Mrs. Lighthouse, to Alex's enormous relief. "You and I are going to cook! Linden."
Linden stopped at the glass doors.
"You know the rules."
"I do, I know all the rules," said Linden happily.
The main rule, it seemed, was that they were to stay in the yard, although Alex could not tell where Linden's "yard" ended. There was no fence or river that he could see; just lots of trees, big stones, and a brook that meandered among them.
Linden showed Alex the difference between moss and lichens, and named rocks like quartz, jasper, granite and Alex's favorite: mica. Alex named a few hardy October wildflowers; trees like ponderosa, spruce, cedar, and banyan (even though there weren't any banyan trees in LInden's back yard); and many shades of green and brown, which his mother had taught him.
"Hey, what about the monster you saw?" said Linden out of the blue.
"Oh!" Alex hopped with excitement. "Well, it was silver, with lots of colors under the silver. And it had horns and wings and sort of a mane, like a lion, but, you know, silver, and lots and lots of legs. It was humongous."
Linden stared keenly into Alex's eyes for a very long moment, as though trying to read his mind to see if he was making it up. Finally Linden said: "Where did you see it?"
"In the woods by my house." Alex started walking again. "There's a bridge. Over the bridge, sometimes, you can get to… this… other place."
"Wait, wait, wait. Sometimes?"
"Most times it's just the regular forest. But sometimes—at night!" he exclaimed. It had just hit him. "Only at night I can see… a monster and magic things in there. Come to my house at night and I'll show you!"
"Hey, we can have a sleep-over!"
"What's a sleep-over?"
Linden grinned. "When I sleep over at your house!"
Alex jumped. "Maybe you could sleep over at my house tonight!"
"Yep, it's Friday. Let's ask our moms," said Linden. "Here: we have to turn around now. This is the end of the yard."
There was still no fence, just a small spruce tree and some white quartz in umber soil, but they turned around, and after a few moments' quiet hiking, Alex saw the blue-gray paint of Linden's big house through the trees—and there were Mom, Mrs. Lighthouse and the Goblin, standing on the deck that overlooked the yard. Alex jumped and waved, and he and Linden ran to the deck's wooden steps.
"Mom!" Alex put his arms as far as they would go around her. "Can Linden sleep over at our house tonight?"
Mom took his face in her hands and smiled. Alex could tell she was going to say yes.
"Oh—not this weekend." Mrs. Lighthouse looked up from prying an overflowing honey bear out of the Goblin's fists. "Linden has plans with his father." The Goblin whined shrilly, and Mrs. Lighthouse swept her up onto her hip.
"But I want—" Linden began.
"Hush," said his mother, bouncing the Goblin.
"Well then, what about in a week or two?" said Alex's mom.
"No, tonight!" said Linden.
Mrs. Lighthouse held up a stern index finger at her son.
"We'd love to have him," said Mom.
"Let me talk it over with his father," Said Mrs. Lighthouse, glancing over her shoulder as she led Alex and Mom into the house and down the wide hallway. "I don't know how our weekends get so full. Scouts, and cousins, and we have this place in Cedar Springs—"
"Linden, I said hush. If you really want a sleepover with Alex, you're going to have to behave yourself. Thank you for visiting, Alex." They had arrived at the front door; Mrs. Lighthouse held it open with her free arm while the Goblin squirmed and squeaked.
For a moment Mom stood still, looking small in spite of her huge belly. But she smiled. "What do you say, Alex?"
"Thank you, Mrs. Lighthouse." He locked eyes with Linden. Linden's faced looked like down-stretched silly putty. "Bye Linden."
That night, a steady rain blurred Alex's view of the yard and the woods from his bedroom window. Still, he squinted hard at the fuzzy spot where the bridge stood, and willed the monster to be there on the other side.
In his dream, he was chasing the Monster, and could only ever see its tail, whipping back and forth in front of him.
"Wait," he called. "I have your present!"
Like a bull-whip, the Monster slither-snapped around to face Alex, its tail lashing across Alex's arms. Alex's marble-run tumbled to the forest floor, the wood pieces breaking apart and the marbles rolling into the moss and dirt and mulch.
Slowly Alex raised his eyes and asked: "Do you like marbles?"
And the Monster threw its fantastic head back and made a sound like an elephant call mixed with firecrackers. This was the monster's laughter.
Making circles with his fork in the leftover syrup from his waffle, Alex peered through the nook window. Watery yellow sunlight found its way through patchwork clouds to glint on grass and leaves that were turning brown, orange and gold—though right next to the bridge there was an explosion of serpent green. Those weeds! Dad's carved sentries looked brighter than usual, sparkling with raindrops.
Alex wanted to show the bridge to Linden. He wanted to tell Linden about the cat and the long-legged shaggy person, both of which he'd forgotten when they'd been together yesterday. He could also show Linden the Shed and the Escape Tree. And they could make up creatures and inventions and do You Draw, I Draw.
"Mom? Can you call Linden's mom so he can come to my house?"
Mom, putting dishes away in the kitchen, looked over her shoulder. "Mrs. Lighthouse already said they were busy—"
"But can you ask? Just ask?"
She turned around, passed a hand over her forehead and sighed. She was glistening, just like the sentries. "Yes, I can ask."
"When are you going to call her?"
"Will you go and see what your dad is doing? I think he's in the Shed."
"Okay. Will you call Linden's mom now?"
"After I finish this chore."
Alex took his plate and mug to the counter and ran outside.
A loud buzz was coming from the Shed; that meant Dad was in the Work half. Still, Alex popped through the door and waited at the workbench for Dad to look up from his band saw.
Dad turned off the saw and wiped his brow; he too was glistening. "X, you have to use ear protection in here. What's up?" He didn't come out from behind his machine or take his goggles off.
"What are you doing?"
Dad lifted an eyebrow. "Um, working."
"Mom told me to ask. It's Saturday."
"Well, I have a big new job. Can't wait."
"Dad, do you invent?"
Dad blinked a few times, said: "Well, no. I just… make things."
"Can we make things today?"
Dad sighed. "Tomorrow, X. Or—probably not tomorrow. I'll be busy for a while. But, hey, you have your privileges back, right? You can play outside all day if you want, and color like crazy, and make things in the house with Mom."
It was Alex's turn to sigh and wipe his brow. Dad chuckled, waved goodbye, and started the saw buzzing again.
Alex ran back to the house, where Mom was now sweeping the floor.
"Mom, what did she say?"
"What did Linden's mom say?"
"Oh—I didn't reach her. I left a message."
"Can you call her again? Please?"
Mom set her shoulders and pressed her lips into a line. Then she said: "No. You call once and leave a message. Then it's the other person's turn."
"You just have to wait."
"Then—then can we go to the woods?"
Mom shook her head slowly, as though just thinking about going to the woods was making her tired, and sighed. "Well, I do have to get rid of those weeds. You can go a little ways into the trees to play, as long as I can see you."
The weeds grew thick and tangled on both sides of the bridge; Mom and Alex crossed together. The other side was ordinary, which didn't surprise Alex since it was day-time. Still. With all the glittery rain and mist, it was easy to pretend that the silver Monster was slither-creeping through the trees to meet him.
Was it a good monster or a bad monster?
Alex decided it was a good monster who liked to play-fight. He galloped at the Monster with an imaginary but extremely shiny sword, and the Monster spread its wings and opened its jaws, but did him no harm, and Alex danced back and twirled around, and then advanced again, brandishing his blade.
However, his monster-sparring was cut short when a quiet cry arose from where Mom was on her knees, next to a pile of glossy green stems and leaves. Alex stopped mid-twirl to see her frozen, one hand on her back, her face scrunched up in pain.
Without knowing what he was doing, Alex was somehow suddenly right next to her, his hands on her cheeks—they were very hot—and his own eyes and throat burning.
"Mom, what's wrong? Mom?" he said, over and over, until her face relaxed.
She closed her eyes and opened them, looked at him and smiled. She took his hands in hers and for another moment didn't say anything but only kept smiling. Then she said, "It's okay, Alex. Everything is okay. I should rest, though. So let's go in."
Holding onto the great carved turtle, she heaved herself up to standing, hoisted the trash can with one hand, and took Alex's hand in the other. She gave the remaining weeds one last baleful glance as they crossed back over the bridge.
Dinner was buttered rice with salt and paprika, buttered green beans, buttered brown bread, and steaming apple juice. While Alex was starting on his second helping of rice, Mom set down her fork and laid her hands on the table. He felt from her a flicker-flow that was as bright as new grass.
She's about to tell me something, Alex realized. She talked to Linden's mom and we're going to have a sleepover!
"Alex, we have something important to tell you. Some good news," she said.
Alex bounced in his chair.
Linden is coming over tonight!
His friend's fuzz-topped, wide-grinning face appeared in Alex's mind. They could sleep in bags in the tent with Dad, and when Dad was asleep they would tip-toe to the bridge—
"Remember we told you that we are going to have another person in our family? A baby brother or a baby sister?"
Alex felt like a balloon had popped in front of his eyes. In his imagination, Linden's grin slipped a little.
He did remember. It had been story time, and Mom was reading a library book about spiders. She pointed to the spider's cottony package of eggs that would one day hatch into a hundred baby spiders. She said there was something like that inside her belly, and one day a baby person would come out. Not a hundred; just one.
Alex remembered, but he didn't say so. He blinked rapidly.
Mom's voice carried on: "When I yelled today, by the bridge? That was just a sign that the baby is almost ready to come out. I was fine after a minute, remember? It will hurt more later, but then it will be over, and we'll have a new baby in our family. We just wanted to remind you."
Alex only half heard her. In the mists of his imagination, Linden's face dissolved; in its place a fat, wrinkly, pug-nosed visage congealed.
"Alex?" There was a laugh in Mom's voice. "Are you okay?"
The words burst out of him: "I don't want a baby!"
"X!" Dad half-laughed, half-chided.
"I don't want a baby! I don't want it to hurt you! I don't want it to come out! Tell it to go away!"
Mom laughed, but tears were spilling out of her eyes. Alex felt from her a confusing mix of love, and pain, and a feeling of being lost and helpless. One of her hands now covered her mouth. Alex started to sob, not knowing exactly why—but knowing one thing: it was all because of the baby.
It rained again that night.
In his dream, the suitcase full of cars clutched tightly under one arm, Alex tip-toed up to the Monster, whose sleeping form blocked the blackly glimmering entrance to its lair.
Carefully Alex set the suitcase down in front of the Monster's Shed-sized head, and opened the lid, revealing a hundred tiny cars, shiny and rusted and dented and new, no two alike.
The Monster's nostrils flared and its eyes opened to slits.
"See?" said Alex, whispering since the Monster had just now been sleeping. "You can have all of them! Will you let me in now?"
But the Monster lumbered to its many feet, sighed like a disappointed dog, and turned away.
On Sunday, Alex did not do anything bad. He dug a hole, which was not against the rules.
Before that, he asked Dad for a map of Morningside. Dad helped him find one, and together they located the spot where Linden's house probably was, and the spot where the Hollow house was. Then Alex ran to his room to make his own map. He drew a line from behind the big blue spruce in his back yard to behind some big boulders that he remembered being in Linden's back yard.
He had a plan.
After lunch, he asked if he could dig, and Mom and Dad said he could. So he retrieved Dad's shovel from the garage and took it to the Blue Spruce, which was on the correct side of the bridge, so he wasn't breaking any rules. He hopped onto the blade the way he'd seen Dad do it.
Over and over Alex jumped up and down on the blade, but all that happened was that the shovel with Alex on top of it finally fell backward, dislodging a feeble sputter of dirt. He lugged the shovel back to the garage and exchanged it for a spade.
He dug and he dug with his spade. By nightfall his hole was very big. Big enough for Blacky the cat to take a nap in. He stood up and wiped his brow like Mom and Dad.
I will dig and dig and dig every day.
He imagined Mom coming across this rather large hole in the earth behind the Blue Spruce, and perhaps venturing inside, and discovering that it was a tunnel.
Would she follow it all the way to Linden's house?
When it gets big, I'll disguise it with plants and dirt, so only I will know about it. And Linden.
For a third night, there was rain.
In his dream this time, Alex didn't get anywhere near the Monster or its cave. He got stuck trying to pull the gorilla that was bigger than he was through his bedroom window, and his dream devolved into nonsense until he found himself making pictures in the soil of the enchanted wood, feeling sad.
But then the Dream Teacher arrived, and Alex learned a brand new way of coloring in the earth.
End of Chapter Two
Coming December 31:
Over the Bridge