You’re a Big Boy Now
by David Smolenski
|part 2 of 4|
‘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 and tossed the bear onto it.
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 on a log — 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...”
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?
...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...
Copyright © 2009 by David Smolenski