By Elizabeth Herald
15 March 2010
The goblin watching me from the bleachers has been watching me all my life. He's short, about five feet two inches, and he dresses impeccably, wearing a full tuxedo most days. His eyes are yellow with no whites, and hungry. His long ears slant behind his head.
I've always considered him a friend. When I was a little girl, he would skulk about close to me and leave golden trinkets in my toy box all the time. But when my mother found out, she sat me on her knee in the rocking chair and told me that she had known that goblin too, long ago, and that I must ask him to go away and leave me alone. If I did that, he would obey. If I didn't, he might steal me.
I told him that one day while I cleaned up my toys. "You have to go away," I said.
"Why?" said the goblin. Its voice rasped.
I handed a golden hair clip back to it. "Because my mother said so."
The goblin jumped on my toy box and sat there, dangling his thin toes. "I would miss you," it said.
I laughed. "You wouldn't miss me. I can't see how you'd ever get bored with all the toys you have."
"They mean nothing," said the goblin. "Goblins can make dead things. Gold rings, gold necklaces, gold rocking horses, but nothing else." It reached a scaly finger towards me, trailed the long nail down my chubby baby arm. I shivered.
"Your mother can't see me now," he said. "So it doesn't matter much what she says. But if you want me to go away forever, then I'll go."
I liked the goblin. He'd never harmed me, and he brought me golden toys all the time. I bit my lip. "I'm really sorry," I said, "but I shouldn't talk to you. Still, if my mother can't see you, then maybe you don't have to go away forever. You could go away just a little, like, over there." I pointed across the room, to the far window.
The goblin nodded and disappeared. He reappeared at a distance, silent.
After my mother discovered the golden trinkets, she clung to me. I lived two blocks from the bus stop, but she waited for me, always. She drove me to the bus stop in winter and sat with the windows on de-fog and the radio on soft rock.
In high school I spent more time at school, searched for activities that would take me out of the house. I took up the tuba, the most gruesome and glorious instrument in the marching band. I couldn't picture playing something dainty and pert, like the flute, something my mother would play. A tuba player is a fearsome sight, a person encased in a brass pipe that winds its way under armpits and around the abdomen like a gleaming boa constrictor. There'd be no marching band without the tuba. It was the deep stuff, the undercurrent. I earned every note with my breath.
The goblin watched me from the bleachers every day of marching band camp. Goblins thrive in the night, so the August sun must have been uncomfortable for him, beating on his scaly green skin. He never left me though. Sometimes I'd leave my water bottle on the sidelines where he could sip from the straw, and he'd half-smile.
The band director gave us breaks every half hour, and I used the time to flirt with Travis, a boy from the trumpet section. He had shaggy brown hair and an easy smile. He'd tease me for playing the tuba and I'd tease him for needing a haircut, badly.
The goblin's yellow eyes pleaded with me to allow him closer, to allow him to speak again, but I refused. He'd ruin this.
Travis and I sat next to each other on the band bus and held hands, kissed once under fleece blankets. He never asked me to be his girlfriend, but he did ask me to the Homecoming dance. So I scoured the Goodwill for the perfect vintage dress, a beige and lacey evening gown that clung to my hips. I bought my first pair of high heels too, and unwrapped them carefully from the tissue paper.
The night of the dance, Travis knocked on the door and I counted to ten before opening it. "Come in," I said, my voice breathy.
He stared at me, at my dress, and I waited for him to say, You look beautiful. But instead he said, "Is that your real dress?"
"Yes." I smoothed the lace on my legs and adjusted the spaghetti strap on my right shoulder.
"Oh," he said.
My mother swooped in with her camera flashing, and we posed for a few pictures before Travis grabbed my arm roughly and said we had to go or we'd be late. Travis found another girl for the first slow dance, hugged her close and swayed, his lips an inch from her ear. I stood alone by the refreshment table scooping my fourth cup of punch and nibbling on potato chips. I thought about dancing, but a few girls had seen me and snidely asked where I'd purchased my dress. I squirmed at the feeling of eyes following me—green eyes, blue eyes, brown eyes of my classmates. And I thought, I prefer the goblin's yellow eyes.
He was there, of course, crouched in the dark corner behind the DJ set-up. I abandoned my cup of punch and walked over to him.
"Hi," I said.
"Hello," he said, and bowed to me. His voice was raspy as I remembered it.
"I've missed you," I admitted. "You were always kind to me."
The goblin inched closer to me, his toenails clicking on the tiled floor. "Come with me. Come with me and marry me. I'm so tired of dead things."
Marry him. I stepped backwards. "I can't marry you. I'm sorry if I gave you the wrong idea. I was just a little lonely tonight."
"I've been alone for five hundred years," he said.
He said it simply and without guile. I imagined my own moment by the punch bowl multiplied by five hundred years, and tears sprung to my eyes. I stroked one of his long ears, and he shuddered.
"I'll kiss you," I said. "One kiss."
He kissed me. He tasted metallic, smelled like a shut room.
When we broke apart, he said, "Thank you," and bowed again.
Our moment was interrupted by the DJ booming over the mic. He announced a dance contest, and I blushed at the thought of it. But the goblin motioned me forward. "Go on," he crooned. "You're beautiful and alive. No one will laugh if you dance. Not tonight." He met my eyes seriously. "I promise you this."
I've always trusted the goblin's word, so I climbed on the stage in my shaky high heels. Claiming a place beside the other contestants, I danced. I spun and dipped and raised my hands above my head while the crowd cheered. No one laughed at me. I didn't win, but I was glorious and free. I twirled on my way down.
Travis gave me a grudging ride home after the dance. He pulled up to the curb and I walked alone up the stepping stone path to my house. Light still shined from the living room window because my mother had waited up for me, of course. She patted an empty seat next to her on the couch, and I perched on the edge of the cushion while she began plucking bobby pins from my hair. She squeezed my shoulder. "How was the dance?"
I told my mother, "The goblin asked me to marry him."
It'd been years since we'd spoken of him, but she knew the goblin I meant immediately. She dropped the bobby pins, clutched my shirt, and cried a wet spot into it. "Annie, no. Annie, my baby, I'm so sorry. He can't steal you, he can't he can't."
"Mom, no one's going to steal me."
She wrung both my hands, still sobbing. "It's not that simple. The same goblin came to me when I was young, like you. He made promises to me, promises that would give me this life, if I just gave him gifts."
"Rings, necklaces, watches, for success." My mother bit her lip, and I saw the guilt in her eyes. "A child."
I yanked my hand away from hers.
Grabbing the car keys from the kitchen table, I stormed out the door. My mother ran after me, shouting, "Don't kiss him. A goblin's kiss turns you invisible. I can see the mark of it on you, but it's fading, thank God."
I choked and touched my fingers to my lips. Invisible. No one had seen my dancing. That's why they hadn't laughed.
The goblin stood outside the door, waiting for me, his yellow eyes wide and sad. He reached a hand towards me and opened his mouth to speak. His pointy teeth gleamed in the streetlight.
Before he spoke, I said sharply, "Go away."
His ears drooped and he disappeared.
I revved the car ignition and started driving. I didn't stop until I found a lonely road winding through the forest, a road my mother would never find. I pulled over and sat on a rock beneath a pine tree. I sat there until the sun rose behind tree trunks and threw shadows on the ground. My shadow barely flickered at first, but it grew stronger as time passed. A rabbit hopped by, and I reached down to pet it. It hopped away, scared of my presence. I had a presence again.
I went back to the world, and I worked hard, harder than my mother. I earned my life. I attended Dartmouth and majored in finance. I married my college sweetheart, a sweet boy named Dale. We had a little girl, Ruby, after three years of marriage. I threw myself into my job, working overtime to make my presence known. I would not be dependent upon anyone but myself for golden trinkets.
Weekdays, I commuted an hour each way into the city and used the time on the train to call my husband and tell him what to make for dinner. Without a reminder call, I'd come home to a package of frozen chicken breasts. Once a week, I called my mother too. I knew she waited for me to call. She was always thinking of me. I timed the call right before the train entered a tunnel. The reception went fuzzy fifteen minutes in, every time.
The nights blurred together. I'd rush through the door and throw my purse to the ground, hours after I'd promised to be home. Dale would stand in the kitchen, arms crossed. There was always a reason for our fights. I'd stayed too late at the office. I'd checked my email before I hugged him hello. More than once, I forgot to pick up my daughter from daycare. How do you explain that?
I often thought of the goblin, of how much he gave my mother, of what he gave me before I banished him—that night of dancing without fear. Sometimes I twirled alone in the bathroom before my daughter's cries woke me, and my robe would fly out like a skirt.
Five years into happily ever after, Dale left me, promising to visit Ruby on weekends and send a check once a month. The day the papers were finalized, I stood by the microwave at 9pm in my work clothes, willing a package of chicken breasts to thaw faster, goddammit, and my daughter threw a tantrum on the floor because she couldn't wait to be fed. She pounded the floor with her little fists.
I called the goblin, silently, and he came.
"Do you want her?" I whispered.
He squinted his yellow eyes at her, squatted on the floor near my daughter. He ran a hand through her hair and licked the tip of his curved fingernail. "No," he said. "I still want you."
I was horrified at myself, of course. I banished him immediately and called for a pizza. "Hush," I said to my daughter. After dinner, I brushed her hair, and washed it, and brushed it again.
I often wondered how much children understand. Did my daughter know, somehow, what I'd done? As Ruby grew to a teenager, she loathed me, with more than the normal teenage angst. I called the goblin a few times in those years, but he never came. Maybe he knew I wasn't serious.
So I wrote. I wrote letters to the goblin, drew pictures of me in a wedding dress, him in his tux. I went on the computer and dated a series of sad, inadequate men, and after each failed date, I called to the goblin.
At Ruby's high school graduation, I joined the crowd of parents greeting the graduates as they filed off the field, faces flushed, smiles bright. Ruby threw her arms around Dale and hugged him tightly. A few feet away, I waited patiently to snap a picture with my daughter, camera strap digging into my neck. But Ruby sighed, pecked me on the cheek, and ran off with friends. The flash took too long to load. She just didn't have time right now.
When the field emptied, I wandered alone among the rows of folding chairs, trying to find Ruby's seat. I found the goblin instead. He stood in the bleachers, clothed in a black tux, yellow eyes hopeful. "Have you changed your mind?"
I said nothing. I climbed the bleachers to where he stood. Then I grabbed him and bent over and kissed him, long and deep. He struggled a bit, his nails raking my forearms, but I held him down. I kissed him until my lips bled and I felt the edges of the world fade, and then I stopped. I wiped my face. The goblin was breathless, but he couldn't see me. He'd never see me again. No one would. I twirled once, there beneath the endless sky, and smiled.