You’re a Big Boy Now
by David Smolenski
In the middle of it all stood Bobby, listening to the rain drumming on the leaves far above, still sopping, hair and clothes plastered to his skin, wringing his shirtfront between both hands. Once within the semi-shelter of the trees he relaxed a bit. It was drier here and somehow he felt that he was closer to wherever he was going.
Now he stood, attempting to shake the wetness from his clothes and doing his best to want to find the Armyman. To want to find Mommy. That’s how you find something in a dream, he had been informed. This wasn’t a terribly difficult task for the boy, but he wasn’t sure exactly how he was to want in order to find. He had been wanting to find his mother all nightmare long but hadn’t yet. Perhaps he was doing it wrong.
Bobby concentrated, thinking of all the ways he wanted to find her. He wanted to find her smiling. Find her laughing. Find her warm arms and soft voice. He wanted to find her saying ‘It’s just a dream, my darling angel’.
Perhaps that did it: behind the pounding rain, Bobby heard a faint sound. He tensed, listening as hard as he could. There it was again: a slow, steady clanging. It sounded like a bell. The bell rang and Bobby listened, seeking the source, picking his own way through dripping foliage.
Bobby took one timid step in the direction from which he thought the sound came. And then another. With each step he was surer that this was the way he wanted to go. The ground began to slope upwards. Ever-so-slightly at first and then steeper and steeper until the boy was practically on hands and knees, clawing at roots and rocks for purchase. Rain ran in rivulets through the mud, past Bobby, down the hill.
With each scrambling step the sound of the bell grew louder. Louder and closer until Bobby reached level ground atop the hill. He stood upright, filthy again, and started through the trees, winding his way past soaked shrubs and around pooling puddles.
He could hear the bell clearly now and it clearly came from just ahead. Peering around one last trunk, Bobby saw that there was an opening in the trees, this one untouched by the swamp and falling sky.
The ground ahead was high and dry; a smattering of wild flowers grew cautiously in the dappled morning sunlight that filtered through the parted branches far above. Sunlight. The first Bobby had seen since... since falling asleep. There, in the middle of it all stood the Armyman beside a red pot hanging from a tripod.
Taken aback by the sudden change in scenery, Bobby froze. Seeing the boy, the Armyman stopped ringing his bell and doffed his visored cap in greeting. He was tall and thin as before and wore an undersized uniform that left his pale forearms and lanky calves bare. Even stooping, his head brushed the branches overhead.
There was no face on that head. It was smooth and empty. Bobby felt that if this strange, slow-moving giant had had a face, that face would be a sad one. The small boy and the large man took each other in.
Bobby stepped out of the showering rain and into the sunshine. “I los’ Mommy,” he blurted. The Armyman can help. He knew this nightmare must nearly be over. Nearly ended. Near Mommy, Bobby hoped.
The Armyman would have smiled kindly had he a face with which to smile. In one enormous step he was before the boy; patting him gently on the head; taking him by the hand and leading him to the red pot.
Releasing Bobby’s hand, the Armyman held up one spindly finger as if to say ‘Half a moment, I have just the thing.’ The giant reached into his pot. A bit of rummaging and he gingerly withdrew a small door, no bigger than the palm of his charitable hand.
Mommy’s door. Bobby saw on it the scratches, the claw marks, miniaturized but just like before. The boy watched while the Armyman took the door to the far end of the clearing where he bent at the waist and placed it firmly on the ground. It stood upright, waiting.
The Armyman returned to Bobby. He knelt beside the boy and pointed to the door, smiling facelessly, eyes-that-aren’t beaming encouragement.
“But it’s lockt,” Bobby protested.
‘Ah, nearly forgot,’ the Armyman’s face seemed to say. He reached into his waistcoat pocket and withdrew a strange key. A skelltin key — that’s what unlocks special doors, Bobby’s mother had confided in him.
Bobby took the proffered key and the Armyman gestured with both hands: ‘go on.’ Bobby did, starting towards the tiny door that the giant had set at the edge of the clearing. It wasn’t so much that the door was small but that it was far away. With each step it grew larger until, as the boy stood before it, the door was Bobby-sized. Above, dark clouds gathered ominously, obscuring the sky once more, but the boy barely noticed: almost home. Almost to Mommy.
It wasn’t until Bobby reached the door that he realized the knob was still missing. He turned back to the Armym...
LOST SOMETHING, BOBBY? There, behind the Armyman, in the rainy shadows at the edge of the trees, darkness gathered. It began to seep in from the edges of the clearing, tentative at first, exploring the edge of sunlight, caressing the flowers, then drowning them with shade and lapping at the high and dry.
The Armyman extended himself, standing tall and rustling the leaves above with his cap. Rage filled his faceless visage. In one stride he was at the clearing’s edge. Removing his cap, he swatted at the reaching dark, swishing away the smoky runners. More followed, growing thicker, stronger, clutching at the Armyman’s legs now, threatening to topple him.
Bobby cowered by the door, not knowing what to do, where to go. At the edge of the clearing, he saw the burning flash of those eyes. YOU DO NOT BELONG HERE, the voice snarled as the Armyman struggled. THE BOY IS MINE!
Darkness billowed now from between the trees, engulfing the Armyman and filling the clearing. Bobby ran toward the giant and faceless safety. Those eyes moved, too, heading the same way, stopping the boy in his tracks, cutting him off.
Bobby turned, searching for somewhere to go, somewhere to hide but saw only dark unfolding around him. No door. No clearing. Just two darker shapes approaching each other and circling. Bobby saw, more than heard, their struggle. He heard breathing and growling and snarling. Thuds and bangs and groans. Sloppy, fleshy wet sounds as blood was drawn and spattered and spilled.
Bobby cowered and cringed, unable to make out the details. He squinted at the shapes contorting in conflict, not knowing for which to root. There, a glimpse of red eyes. There, the silhouette of a cap. The shapes struggled around the clearing, around Bobby, slowing as the two oneiric entities tired. The silence between blows increased until at last there was a pained, gurgling low and a thudding crash that Bobby felt in his knees.
He waited, clutching his key and shivering apprehensively. When no new sounds came, he started cautiously, inching his way through the cold, the dark, and the quiet to where he last saw the darker shapes. The eyes were gone, but the Armyman lay motionless on the ground. He looked smaller now. Shriveled and haggard. Defeated.
NOW WHAT, BOBBY?
Clutching the key in one hand, Bobby cowered, sinking to the ground and hugging his knees tightly to his chest, eyes on the shrunken giant. ‘It’s just a dream, my darling angel.’ His mother’s soothing words did little to calm the boy as those eyes approached. “Wake up,” Bobby shrieked at himself, eyes shut desperately now. “Please, please wake up!”
THAT’S RIGHT, BOBBY. COWER. QUIVER AND QUAKE BEFORE THE GREAT AND TERRIBLE. The darker shape loomed over Bobby — much larger now; much closer now — spilling fresh blood onto the boy’s soiled pajamas.
“You’re only a dream,” the boy sobbed meekly in protest. He could smell hot, stinking breath. Like death it smelled. Like cigar-scented Cookie, lying in a pool of her own blood. And Oscar, laughingly pleading for mercy. Even like Daddy, in a white bed beside the respilator — that helps Daddy breathe, his mother had explained.
“I don’t believe in you!” Bobby looked straight into those eyes as he said this and for a moment, he nearly thought the words to be true. But the moment was soon lost.
YOU DON’T BELIEVE IN ME? The voice chuckled. YOU DON’T HAVE TO BELIEVE IN ME, BOBBY. Those eyes blazed brightly and Bobby’s shut tightly. He tried with all his might to not believe in this dream. Tried as hard as he could to wake. He felt it close; his hackles rose. The stench of rotten breath enveloped Bobby, swallowed him.
I’M STILL HERE.
And then nothing. Bobby opened his eyes. Just dark. He opened them wider to no avail. Bobby could feel a smooth, hard surface beneath his filthy socks, supporting him. He could hear the sounds of silence in the empty air: his dry, raspy breath, quickened by panic; his heartbeat, ceaselessly lub-dubbing warm blood and hot adrenaline through elastic arteries.
STILL HERE, the voice repeated, booming from everywhere at once. The words filled Bobby’s head and drove out his thoughts.
“No!” The voice made no response. “Where’re you?”
I’M STILL HERE, BOBBY, the voice laughed, dripping with malice. YOU’LL NEVER FIND ME. Eyes wide, straining hungrily for some taste of light, Bobby started through the empty dark, trying as best he could to follow the sound. AND YOU’LL NEVER FIND MOMMY.
Bobby still held the key that the Armyman had given him. He felt its hard metal shape in the palm of his fist. It was warm. Bobby opened his hand slightly and as he did the key began to glow softly. Soon, Bobby’s eyes had adjusted to the dim, new light and he could see, not that there was much to see. He saw the floor, sleek and black, but on every side darkness swallowed the light before it had gone far.
Using the light of the key, Bobby walked slowly in the direction of the taunting voice: MOMMY IS GONE, BOBBY.
The boy clenched his tiny fists at his sides, more angry now than afraid. “Shut up!” he shouted into the darkness, but the voice would not:
SHE’S GONE FOREVER. YOU’RE ON YOUR OWN NOW.
“Shutupshutupshutup,” the boy ran after the voice, screaming at the top of his lungs, until he noticed a motionless mass at the edge of the dark. Approaching, he saw that it was Oscar. Or what was left of him. The poor clown had been mauled savagely, his suit torn to shreds revealing an emaciated body cut deeply with crisscrossing claw marks. In each eye was stuck a long, rusty needle, like the one he had used to pop Bobby’s balloon kitten.
Silent now, eyes wide and terrified again, Bobby backed away from the morbid sight. Only a few steps and he stumbled over another soft shape. This one was Cookie, exactly as she had been in her kitchen. Horror still on her face, slowly-burning cigar nearly ashed out. Beside Cookie’s corpse, a smoked smoldering mass; and at its center, Auntie’s glasses, the frames melted out of shape, lenses singed.
The boy pushed himself up and staggered away, unable to pry his thoughts from the bodies behind. It’s just a dream. Just a dream. Just a dr...
SHE’S NEXT, BOBBY. The voice was much louder now.
Next like the clown and the cook and the librarian and the Armyman. But why not his mother? If it had taken all those Bobby had met here, why not her? Why isn’t his mother amongst the dead?
Maybe Mommy isn’t here.
“You don’t even know where she is!” Bobby shouted into the dark. Maybe it didn’t know where she was any better than he did.
Y...YOU WILL NEVER BE A BIG BOY, B, BOBBY, the voice stammered, clearly shaken.
There: just ahead. Bobby saw a small shape moving through the dark. It pitter-pattered away, just beyond the reach of the boy’s lit key. He followed the sound until his light fell upon a tiny creature.
It looked like a toad - with its slimy greenish-brown skin and bulging eyes - though it walked upright. In one tiny hand it held a makeshift megaphone, just a cardboard cone with one end cut out. The creature looked agitated, glancing wide-eyed into the dark, mumbling nervously to itself. Seeing Bobby had caught up to it, the toad-thing hurriedly lifted the megaphone to its mouth and spoke: NEVER BE A, UH... was all it could think to say, faltering.
For a moment, the boy stood confused. That was the voice, a harsh whisper inside Bobby’s head and all around him. He held the key high for a better look. Was this tiny thing his tormentor?
Maybe Mommy never left. The sudden realization took Bobby’s fear. Maybe I did. He slapped the megaphone to the ground and crushed the cardboard underfoot.
Stripped of its bark, the creature cowered. “Stay away from me,” it croaked meekly, lifting fragile arms to shield its bald pate. “Leave me be!” It turned and scampered out of the light, its red eyes less menacing, the dark less threatening.
The boy followed, chasing the faint creature until, at last, his key found a door standing alone in the dark.
Mommy’s door? No, this door had no claw marks; its intact knob beckoned brightly to the boy.
“No girls allowed but Mommy” warned the hand-crayoned sign taped across its middle. Bobby knew this door. It was Bobby’s door. It led back to Bobby’s room and the shelter of his sheets. Mommy’s out there: through the door, through waking lids and a sunny-morning hall. Through her bedroom door and under down-filled comforter. She’s out there.
This was the door that Bobby wanted.
“Please...” The fleeing gremlin stood with its back to the door, facing the boy. Now it was Bobby’s turn to loom, his turn to frighten and pursue. Bobby’s eyes gleamed. The thing trembled, sweat squeezing through clammy scalp, gaze darting this way and that, seeking egress.
Bobby pushed it aside easily, flung it out of the light, took no notice of its pleas and pleases and instead inserted the Armyman’s key into the door’s knob. As he turned it, orange light began to shine invitingly in outline between door and jamb. Bobby stepped back as the tumblers worked their mechanical magic and the door swung open.
There was Bobby’s room:
There sat the toys Bobby had neglected to put away. There hung the multi-stained overalls Bobby had worn to his party, had worn when he made the wish. There was his bed, brightly colored spread rumpled as he’d left it.
“Bobby...” He heard his mother’s voice calling his name. It was faint and far off.
I’m coming. Bobby stepped through the door and opened his eyes.
* * *
No longer so soaked and filthy with muck. No longer so shivering and scared. No longer so lost.
Bobby wiped shards of sleep from long shut lashes. He looked around his room, toys frozen in mock battle, overalls over chair.
It was late. Bobby knew this because Mickey’s hands met on the face of the clock beside his bed. Mother usually came when he slept late, glowing into his room behind a shining smile, easing him awake with loving hands and soft voice.
Bobby flung his covers aside and rolled out of bed, cold toes sliding into slippers, shambling across the carpet, through his bedroom door into the restored hallway. He followed it to his mother’s unmarked door. Reached for the knob — a moment of apprehension: still locked? — and turned it. It twisted easily and the door opened on silent hinges.
This was his mother’s room. Four-poster bed with ruffled duster. Four drawer bureau with mirror atop. Four corners filled with potted ficus. There, in the middle of it all, his mother still slept restlessly, tossing in tangled sheets. She called his name again. “Bobby...”
Her eyes were closed. There was an odd look on her face. Bobby knew that look. She wore it when he had found her before, he in the hands of the Armyman, in the lamp-lit parking lot, in good shape despite the possibilities spawned by a mother’s malicious imagination.
Bobby approached, shook her shoulder. She opened her eyes. “Mommy.”
“Bobby,” she exhaled, as though she had held that word in for quite some time. The boy smiled at his mother.
“I had a bad dream,” she breathed. “I thought I lost you. I was worried.” But the worry melted and her eyes softened, her mouth loosened, her forehead smoothed. She hugged Bobby. The boy savored the contact for one long moment before remembering that he was supposed to hug back.
Copyright © 2009 by David Smolenski