You’re a Big Boy Now
by David Smolenski
|part 3 of 4|
The trees were gone. Right in front of Bobby’s nose loomed an enormous shape. The mist receded as Bobby approached and the shape’s features faded into view.
There, in the middle of the fog, a concrete building was revealed, its face a row of featureless, stone columns bracketing twin wooden doors. A half dozen jagged and crumbling steps led up to those doors and above them, chiseled neatly into the concrete, were the letters Bobby knew meant ‘library’. Along the stairs at the base of each column hundreds of books were stacked, rotting away, soaked with mildew, their spines lolling like slobbery tongues.
Almost there. Tendrils of fog retreated as Bobby hurried excitedly up the stairs. He pushed; the doors swung wide. Light seeped cautiously through the open doorway revealing a mostly empty hall. Here a tattered and torn book, there a splintered reading desk.
The broken-tile floor was haphazardly strewn with lonely pages torn from stories Bobby knew. There lay Clifford the Big Red Dog, alone without once-upon-a beginning or happily-ever ending. And over there, Curious George fluttered about on a breeze from the library’s open doors, the Man With the Yellow Hat nowhere to be seen.
“Hullo?” Bobby inquired of the dim hall. No answer, not even an echo. Only silence. The boy stepped into the library, peering through the darkness in search of Cookie’s Auntie. She’ll help find Mommy, he knew.
Bobby’s filthy socks no longer made the wet schloping sound to which he had become so accustomed. They were still wet and they still schloped, but they no longer made the sound in this silent hall. So quiet, Bobby thought, hunched and cold, glancing about uneasily.
Slowly the boy’s eyes adjusted to the dim library. The hall was lined with columns just like those outside. They towered upwards into the darkness to hold up a ceiling Bobby could not see. Amongst the scattered pages on the floor were a number of books. Bobby recognized most of those he passed as he walked through the hall. There was the story of four-eyed Arthur and his pesky little sister, and over there a Very Hungry Caterpillar ate through the pages on which he was portrayed.
Ah! There was Bobby’s favorite. He knew it by heart but only his mother could tell it right. He bent to pick up the dog-eared book. Where the Wild Things Are, Bobby mouthed, tracing the title with one finger. He opened the book and flipped through its faded pages.
In the dim light he could just barely make out the story. Max, sent to bed for naughtiness, escapes his room to find a changed world. There, the pajama’ed boy conquers the wild things and makes them his subjects.
The boy smiled, remembering the story the pictures told, but a movement on the page caught Bobby’s eye. Beyond the dancing wild things, a wilder thing prowled the illustrated trees. A shadow, a dark shape, slinking from tree to tree. Closer and closer it came to the monsters dancing around their dreaming child-king until Bobby could make out those horrible, red eyes, as awful on the page as in the wood. Suddenly, it leapt from the trees at Max and his subjects...
Startled, Bobby tossed the book away. It scattered broken tiles and kicked up dust as it hit the floor, but made no sound. In fact, there was no sound at all. Not even the gasp that Bobby was sure he had uttered.
“Hullo?” Bobby asked the silent hall once more. Though his mouth and tongue moved, they made no sound. “Hey!” Bobby tried to shout. Not a whisper. Not a hum or a moan or a groan.
The silence made Bobby uncomfortable, but he still had a nightmare from which to wake. He looked into the gloomy corners of the hall to make sure that he hadn’t been followed out of the book.
The coast was clear but at the far end of the library the boy noticed light dimly emanating from beneath a small door. Bobby walked quickly to the door and knocked. It opened, swinging silently on its nearly rusted-out hinges.
The room beyond was lined with bookcases, but no books. Instead, mushrooms and fungi grew in tiers up the shelves, accompanied by half-melted candles drip-dripping wet wax as their flames danced. An ancient rack sagged under the weight of a dozen ragged coats in one corner.
There, in the middle of it all, sat a desk, old and scratched. Splotches of wood showed clearly through flaking enamel. Papers littered its top. One leg was missing; three threadbare books did the job instead. Behind the desk Cookie’s Auntie sat, wreathed in smoke, sucking thirstily at a spent cigarette.
Bobby stepped into the room and the door clanged shut loudly behind, the sudden sound startling like the book before.
“Hello, child.” Auntie flicked the butt away and adjusted her thick, horn-rimmed glasses: one lens broken, the other missing. Her graying hair was pulled back severely into a bun, stretching her pasty, liver-spotted face tautly cheerful. The high-collared dress she wore was navy blue with little, white dots. She looked like a librarian.
“I’m Bobby. Can you help me?” Straight to business.
“Probably,” she answered absently as she began searching for something. She opened the desk drawers one by one, digging through the papers and odds and ends that filled them. “You look shaken, child. What ever is the matter?”
“I los’ Mommy,” Bobby explained as she searched, “and it’s chasing me.”
“What is, child?” She looked up, nearly concerned.
The dark. And those eyes.
“Oh, you should steer clear of that, child.” She dismissed his concern and returned to her search. “It will do you no good.”
“Steer clear means ‘stay away from,’ child” Auntie explained absently.
“But I can’t steer-clear.” Bobby liked using new words. “It wants t’git me. It said so.”
“Oh, that is dreadful.” Consumed by her search, Auntie forgot to add the suitable amount of sympathy to her words. “You’ve lost your mother, have you, child?” she asked, still distracted. “What’s she look like then?”
Bobby thought of his mother: She smells like flowers. Purple flowers. She makes good cookies. Especially the chocolate chip kind. She does all the voices when she reads stories... And she said she’d never leave.
When Auntie said no more, Bobby waited. Until: “Ah-ha!” she snapped the last desk drawer shut and held up a broken cigarette triumphantly. It was bent in two places and bits of cured tobacco stuck out where the paper was torn. The filter was burnt as though someone had attempted to light the wrong end.
Auntie put the cigarette to her lips and lit it with a match from her pocket. She sucked in deeply and sighed, spewing smoke from mouth and nose. Bobby hated the smell. His mother said it causes emfazemia — that’s why Daddy left. Was Auntie going to leave, too?
“Now, child, what were you saying?” She took another puff.
“I los’ Mommy,” Bobby repeated.
“Lost.” Puff. “You have lost your mother. Now: you try.” Auntie absently ashed her cigarette with a flick of the thumb. The stress must have been too much for the tattered joint; the torn paper split and ground tobacco escaped onto the desktop. It wasn’t until Auntie lifted the cigarette to her lips once more that she noticed it had fallen apart. She tossed it aside and resumed her search, growing more frantic by the moment.
“LosT,” Bobby practiced. “I losT Mommy.”
“Better,” Auntie encouraged distractedly, “try again.” She dug through the files and books and flotsam that littered her desktop. No luck. “Again, child. You must get this sort of thing right if you wish to wake properly.”
Auntie turned to the desk chair, ripping through its ragged upholstery with a rusty letter opener she had discovered in a drawer. She tore out the chair’s stuffing with fervor. Bobby repeated as best he could while this strange, old lady moved on from the now mangled chair to the pockets of the coats on the rack.
Her eyes lit up as one expeditioning hand returned with a crumpled pack of smokes. Three left. Sitting heavily in what remained of the desk chair, Auntie lifted a fresh cigarette from the pack to her lips, hands shaking in anticipation.
“The lady says you can help me.”
“The lady is it, child?” Auntie replied. “Well, first things first.” The librarian lit the cigarette with another match from her pocket. She inhaled deeply, medicating away her cares, and blew the smoke out through her nostrils, thickening the haze that was beginning to fill the room. Bobby wrinkled his nose. Then he sneezed, adding dust to smoke.
“Do you have a cold?” Auntie asked with detached concern. As she spoke tentative tentacles of smoke snaked from her nose and mouth: “Figures with those clothes. You should have put on something more appropriate, child.”
“I din’t know...”
“Nonsense, child,” Puff. Puff. “You should always be prepared.” Thick gray smoke billowed after each word, rising in curling clouds, sliding along the ceiling and taking the room’s corners from focus.
The librarian sucked in the rest of her cigarette, savoring the last breath before exhaling slowly with closed eyes. “You should find your mother, child,” Auntie advised with eyes still shut. “That’s the grown-up thing to do.” She spent a moment in silent reverie, a slight smile on her face. With a shudder, she flicked her spent butt away before drawing a fresh cigarette from the pack. Bit it. Lit it.
“I dunno where she is.”
“Hmm...” The librarian sat and smoked while Bobby stood and watched. Watched and coughed. “Perhaps you shouldn’t have lost her then.” Auntie puff-puffed thoughtfully. “When did you notice that your mother was lost?”
“When I wokt’up.”
“Woke up?” Auntie raised an eyebrow. Interested at last. “But, child, you aren’t awake now.”
“When I wok’up here,” Bobby elaborated.
Auntie relaxed, relieved. Another long drag, “Ahh, I see. And what happened when you woke up here?”
“No Mommy. I lookt for her. But she wasn’t here.”
“Not here, you say?” The old woman sat for a moment, considering the boy’s plight, cigarette drooling smoke from where it sat in her hand. At last she put the filter to her lips and inhaled. In a matter of seconds the cigarette had been turned to ash; its herb spent; its purpose fulfilled.
Auntie tossed the butt aside and brushed ash from her faded dress before reaching for another. She withdrew the last cigarette and looked at the package disappointedly. Empty. Auntie crumpled and tossed it aside.
“You should never have left your room,” she went on. “It was then that you lost your...” She patted down her pockets. No more matches. “Lost your...” she stumbled over her words. No, no matches on the desk, either. “Lost your...” then she noticed the candles that illuminated the now hazy room, lit her cigarette and continued, “What was I saying?”
“Ah, yes, you should not have lost your mother.”
“But I did,” Bobby insisted.
“Then, perhaps you shouldn’t have left your room,” Auntie smoked. Bobby coughed. “When you are lost, you should stay in one place, child. That’s the grown-up thing to do.”
“But it’ll chase me.”
“If you wouldn’t run, it couldn’t chase you,” Auntie explained as though it were the simplest idea in the world.
“But it’d git me!” Ah, there’s the rub, Bobby.
Auntie began the search for her next cigarette, re-rummaging through each of the coats in turn and then dropping them to the floor. When the rack was empty she turned to the bookcases. She brushed aside the colorful mushrooms that littered the shelves, searching for some misplaced butt.
“If you had just taken my advice in the first place, you would never have been in this mess, child.” As the librarian spoke, her search took her further down the row of bookcases. It became increasingly difficult for Bobby to see her until she was no more than a dark smear in the ever-thickening smoke.
Auntie’s voice came lazily through the haze: “You should probably find your mother, child. It’s getting late.”
“How to find Mommy!”
“Well, you shouldn’t have lost her in the first place.”
“I din’t!” Couldn’t’ve, shouldn’t’ve, wouldn’t’ve, but no help at all.
“Then how’d she become lost?” Auntie stepped through the smoke back into Bobby’s sight, an unlit cigarette dancing between her lips once more. “Mothers don’t just lose themselves.” She absently wiped bits of mutilated fungus from her fingers onto her dress.
“Wish, child? What wish?”
“My birfday wish,” Bobby explained: “No more nightmares.”
“Well, it’s simple then: you shouldn’t have made that wish. It was a foolish wish to begin. You should have wished for something useful...” Auntie drew on her cigarette, realized it was still unlit and began again the survey of her pockets for a light: “like a match, perhaps.”
“But Mommy said no more nightmares.” ‘Like a big boy,’ she had said, though, by now Bobby had all but given up on that. The nightmare was here to stay and now he just wanted to wake.
“And you should always listen to your mother.” She lit the cigarette on a nearby candle and sat down once more, sucking in smoke greedily. “That’s sound advice for anyone.”
“But it’s a dream.”
“You should have just woken up then, child.” Puff. “You would have avoided all this mess.”
“I can’t. I dunno how.”
Auntie sighed, growing tired of Bobby’s childishness. “You should have thought of that before going to sleep, now, shouldn’t you?” Auntie stood and wandered into the haze. Slowly her features faded until she was only a shadow searching for a fix. Then, that too melted away and there was just a voice: “But it’s no use crying over spilt milk.”
“You should have done what you did last time,” her voice came wafting back to Bobby, fainter now, further away.
“Last time you were lost.” And further still.
In the dark parking lot, he remembered. The Salivation Armyman. With red hat on head and bell in hand and sad, smiling face. “I dunno where he is!”
“You’ll find him if you want to.” She was barely audible now. “Run along now. Go find your mother.”
YES, BOBBY. HE’LL TAKE US TO MOMMY. The voice was back. Somewhere, in all this smoke, those eyes lurked. Bobby searched the swirling vapors frantically, but saw nothing. The boy turned to leave but the door was gone. The room was gone. Just haze. Just smoke. Just empty.
Bobby ran anyway. He ran and ran until his breath was scarce and he thought the voice was furthest away. It was only then that he stopped and turned to see that he hadn’t been followed. Bobby saw only fog — like when you close your eyes, but gray instead.
He turned this way and that searching for some sign, some landmark, some something. But in every direction there was nothing. With all the turning, Bobby had forgotten which way was forward and which was back. If it weren’t for the soggy ground beneath his feet, he soon would have forgotten which way was up and which was down. It all looked the same.
As Bobby searched his drab surroundings, he felt a tear slide down his cheek. He touched his hand to the wetness and another hit his face. But it wasn’t Bobby crying this time. It was the rain. Bobby looked up and saw more drops from above. They fell harder and faster and grew larger and more numerous. Bobby hunched his shoulders against the wet and searched with his eyes for cover but found none.
The rain came down in sheets and blankets and bedspreads, washing the muck from Bobby’s torn pajamas, soaking them through anew, and setting off a fresh bout of shoulder-shivering and tooth-chattering in the boy. But it wasn’t all bad, oh, no. As the rain fell, it melted the fog, and the forest was revealed beneath the sloughing mist until Bobby thought he could make out the faint shadow of trees all lined up at attention a short distance away. The forest was back and Bobby headed toward it. The Armyman can’t be far. Bobby could find him if only he wanted.
And Bobby did want. Oh, so very much he wanted to end this nightmare. But only Mommy makes my nightmares go away, he knew. The Armyman had helped Bobby find his mother before. Perhaps he could do the same this time around.
The trees no longer whispered. They uttered not a peep and stood instead tall and silent and wet, watching the boy. Droplets filtered through their leaves above, running down creased bark and pooling on the ground below. The fog slowly retreated, slipping behind the phalanx of trunks and out of sight.
* * *
Copyright © 2009 by David Smolenski