The baby boy,
exhausted with the exertions and impressions of the day,
slept through it all. Through the rough shunting of the parking
platform in the automated car park, and the metallic clang
of the platform being locked down, he snored peacefully,
his little head leaning obliviously against the car seat
headrest. When the car door clicked open, he only made a
tiny dissatisfied sound. The guttural muttering of the two
that slid into the car and temporarily shared the back seat
with him didn’t penetrate his dreams. He never felt their
small hands opening the clasps of his security harness, nor
did he wake as they lifted him out of his seat, with a gentleness
that belied their fierce appearance.
their tiny, sleeping burden out onto the platform and towards
their exit, leaving the car empty and silent, as if no child
had ever been in it at all.
with her back against the front door, balancing four grocery
bags on her arms. She was torn between blind panic, and annoyance
bordering on anger. Her rapid understanding of what had happened
enabled her to quell the panic. It did nothing, however,
to stop her other reaction from blossoming into fury at her
useless sack-of-shit excuse for a husband.
The worst of it
wasn’t that Don had shown no inclination to help carry the
groceries, concentrating instead on sorting the mail as Marjorie
struggled with the bags. Nor was it his trance-like preoccupation
with the upcoming game.
At the moment,
even leaving their child in the car came in second to calling
him ‘the kid’. This was taking his lackluster approach to
fatherhood to new depths.
“His name,” she
hissed, “is Donny! ”
To her satisfaction,
the inane expression on his face was replaced by guilt; for
an entire second, there was more than just the prospect of
home runs and no-hitters on his mind. Unfortunately, it was
still not enough for him to draw the obvious conclusion.
Where is he?”
“You left him
in the car, you idiot!”
He smiled sheepishly.
“Oops,” he said.
her cool. Donny had been tired enough to sleep for at least
another hour, so there was plenty of time to get him before
he noticed anything wrong.
Still, she had
every reason to be concerned about him. He was still lying
buckled into his car seat, which was on the back seat of
their MPV. Which had been shuffled into the dark robotic
bowels of the autopark.
the autopark. She hated waiting her turn at the entrance.
She hated operating the control panel. But most of all, she
hated waiting minutes for the car to appear. She knew too
well how long it took the system to retrieve their Buick;
she’d left enough house keys, handbags, or sunglasses in
But never Donny.
Never her own flesh and blood.
Don made no move
to go back down for his son, instead looking pointedly at
his watch. She considered standing her ground and making
him choose between the first inning and the safety of their
child. But that was a choice their marriage might not survive,
and a confrontation she wasn’t ready for. Yet.
“For God’s sake!” she
said. Shoving the groceries into his chest, she made her
way around him and pressed the call button.
Behind her, she
heard paper tearing and heavy objects thumping and crashing
to the floor. A cloud of flour billowed around her as she
stepped into the elevator.
Of course, it
was only her imagination that the autopark took twice as
long to produce the Buick. Or so she told herself.
Down in what she
refused to call the control room, she’d operated the control
panel with an efficiency born of concern for her baby. Instead
of her usual fumble around the different buttons and switches,
she went rapid-fire through the entire sequence, pausing
only, in irritation, when she had to enter their four-digit
Of course, Don
had selected the PIN digits, and every time she had to operate
the autopark, she squirmed at the memory of his almost religious
rant about the mind-numbing statistics of long-dead athletes.
Who cared about the difference between batting average
and slugging percentage, or whatever they were called? If
he would spend half the brain power he wasted on Lou Gehrig’s
statistics on remembering her birthday, their marriage would
be in half the trouble it was.
3-4-0-4, she punched
in, and through the large window into the autopark she could
see and hear the device come alive with metallic grumbling
noises. An interminable period of squeaking, clanging and
grinding later, the garage door rumbled up that separated
the parking bay from the autopark. Any moment now, the robotic
parking platform carrying their car would grumble gracelessly
into the bay. Marjorie made her way around the control panel
to the door leading down into the bay. She didn’t want to
waste a single minute rescuing Donny from the car
When the platform
slid into the bay and the garage door closed, it took a moment
for Marjorie to understand what was wrong.
The car wasn’t
off a string of curses that would have impressed her husband.
This was the third time this had happened since they’d moved
into the building. She toyed with the idea of calling Don
down and have him deal with the problem. But she still didn’t
feel up to wrestling with his precious baseball fetish. Calling
Maintenance wasn’t a real option, either. Their dim-witted
handyman Jake needed three weeks to replace a busted light
bulb, and two months to deal with boiler problems. And the
last time the autopark had malfunctioned, all Jake had done
was hand-crank the inner garage door and retrieve the purse
she’d left on the passenger seat.
do that much herself.
As she edged past
the empty parking platform, a little voice whispered that
she wouldn’t be acting this rashly if Don hadn’t been so
useless. She knew a part of her was doing this to prove she
didn’t need him. Let him cheer his slugging heroes, slump
in his favorite chair and drink his Bud, while she saved
Donny, presented him to his father in triumph, and then…Yes,
that was the question, wasn’t it? What then?
The inner garage
slid up as she worked the manual crank. With apprehension,
she looked into the widening hole. When it was high enough
to pass through, she took the small stainless steel flashlight
from her purse and stepped onto the platform. She hesitated
for a moment, wondering if she was really doing this. A fleeting
thought made her take out her cell phone and quick-dial 1.
Don answered after six rings.
“Don, the car
won’t come out. I’m going into…”
“HE WAS SAFE,
It was a measure
of her faith in her husband that she didn’t think for a moment
he was referring to his son.
“Yeah, what was
that, hon?” Don added.
“HOLY COW, STOLEN
“He’s taking a
pretty big lead down there,” Marjorie added automatically,
and that seemingly innocuous quote gave her a disturbing
sense of urgency, making her shiver.
“Enjoy the game,” she
said, and snapped her phone shut. Then, flicking on the flashlight,
she stepped into the autopark.
car in the autopark was easier than she’d expected. There
were rows of parking platforms packed closely together, the
tracks that carried them to the entrance crisscrossing between
them. Metal walkways paralleled the tracks, with a set of
rungs against a pillar near the elevator mechanism in the
center. There were naked light bulbs everywhere, but Marjorie
hadn’t found a switch, so her flashlight was her only illumination.
It flickered occasionally, but that was the least of her
She climbed to
the top and walked a complete circuit of every level, turning
around only when the beam of her flashlight hit the concrete
walls of the cavern.
She frowned. A
cavern? What kind of word was that for a man-made, concrete
structure? But it felt appropriate. Maybe it was the darkness
and silence. Maybe it was the way her footsteps echoed. But
there was something else, a faint, earthy smell, and the
air felt moist.
She found their
car on level 5. Only in the relief flooding her did she realize
how much she’d tensed up. It was difficult to see into the
car, and with the beam bouncing off the rear window, it might
be just a trick of the light. But something seemed wrong.
When she stepped
onto the platform and edged to the back door, she saw the
door was open. Shining her weakening light into the car,
she saw the car seat was empty. And when she leaned into
the car, she found dirt on the back seat.
At first, the
narrow beam made it impossible to see any pattern. But after
adjusting the beam’s spread, she saw a trail from the car
door to Donny’s seat. Climbing out of the car, it was unmistakable:
there was a trail of dirt leading along the edge of the platform,
back to the walkway. And where it reached the walkway it
resolved into clearly separate tracks.
“An animal,” she
thought with a tightening stomach. But that was almost impossible
to believe. It didn’t even matter what it was. A fierce sense
of protectiveness occluded all other considerations. Driven
by huge, bright fear, fear for herself and for Donny, she
stepped onto the walkway and followed the tracks.
twenty feet further on against the concrete wall.
There were two
columns of rough indentations in the wall to her left, forming
another kind of trail leading down into the darkness. For
someone with her indoor climbing experience, the handholds
were a freeway down.
She gave no thought
to who or what would kidnap a child, leave a trail of dirt,
and carve out a ladder in concrete. She didn’t dare.
Twelve feet down,
she found out what caused the moist and earthy smell.
also understood that the term ‘cavern’ wasn’t as misplaced
as she’d thought. She stood at the edge of a forest of metal
supports. As she’d climbed down, the smoothness of concrete
had given way to rough bedrock. And when she stepped down
onto the floor, it gave slightly, and a musty smell rose.
Her flashlight confirmed what her feet felt: the bottom of
the cavern was bare earth.
Marjorie set off
to her right, following the cave wall, dodging around metal
supports flecked with rust, until the rock suddenly opened
up into a passageway to her right. She shone her light into
it, but the diminishing beam failed to illuminate anything
beyond the first fifteen feet. The tunnel looked wide and
high enough for two people to walk abreast.
hesitate. Part of her knew that she was riding the momentum
of her first impulse, driven by her anger with Don, and wondered
at the wisdom of what she was doing. But stopping to think
now would confront her with everything that was weird and
terrifying about it all. Being rational and sensible, as
Don always admonished her, would freeze her in place, or
worse, scare her into going back home. And her son was down
The air in the
tunnel was cold and damp. The only light was the beam of
her flashlight. Here and there, mushrooms grew, and several
times she thought she saw something scuttle from her peripheral
vision. The corridor seemed to be sloping slightly down.
Marjorie realized she was more scared than she had ever been
in her life.
There were cables
and pipes and ducts running along the ceiling, and she spotted
an unlit neon light high on the corridor wall. A bit further,
an extinguished torch leaned from the wall. Still further
down the tunnel sat another neon tube, and when she felt
the little box she thought of as its motor, it was still
warm. The strangest assortment of lighting fixtures sat at
regular intervals along the tunnel wall. A huge light bulb
here; more neon there; a candlestick, a caged security light,
and even, connected to a bit of copper tubing, what could
only be an old-fashioned gas lantern. And each light was
still warm to the touch.
Only people used
artificial lights. There was a person ahead of her, and he
had Donny, and he was leaving the tunnel in darkness. But
she would still catch up with him. She had her own light.
and went out.
A yelp escaped
her lips. She pressed the switch a few times, but got only
a weak glare that died as soon as it appeared. She switched
the batteries around like she’d seen Don do. The flashlight
didn’t even flicker any more.
screamed, not sure if she meant her quarry, or Don. He’d
promised to buy fresh batteries at a gas station last week.
When she lifted
her hands to her face in despair, Marjorie realized she could
see her fingers.
She reached for
the wall to orient herself, and peered down the corridor.
It was faint, but there definitely was an orange glow in
the distance. It wasn’t enough to make out details, but it
gave her an idea of where the walls were, and to see the
direction she was heading. With her determination renewed,
she set off towards the flickering light.
After about half
an hour, she was close enough to see that the tunnel turned
sharply further ahead, and the light was sufficient to make
out details. When she was close enough to clearly make out
the corner in the tunnel, she started to run.
Seeing what lay
around the corner, the sheer force of incomprehension brought
her to her knees.
headlong into a huge space. The wall behind her curved round
to form a dome at least sixty feet high. The cavern was roughly
elliptical, and she thought the mall parking lot would have
fitted comfortably. The cavern was lit by countless campfires
sprinkled around the floor. By their light, Marjorie saw
other tunnels open into the cavern at regular intervals.
But it wasn’t
the cavern itself, or even its occupants, that blanked her
mind with incomprehension.
There were piles
against the wall, between the tunnels. To her right, a pile
of sunglasses rose. The next pile seemed to be of thousands
of pens. There was a pile of grease-stained McDonald’s takeout
bags. Cell phones, notebooks, soda bottles, paperback novels,
coats, purses, CDs. One section of wall was covered with
at least two dozen back seat LCD screens, most of them, she
noticed with renewed fury, tuned to sports channels. To her
left was a pile of keys; next to that, what must have been
a fortune in small change.
pile to pile, emerging from tunnels or disappearing into
them, sitting around the campfires, running around, were
countless…creatures. They were the general size and shape
of children, though brown, and furry. They had small, bright
eyes in pointed faces; knobby limbs, clawed hands; a stoop
to their walk and a jitter to their movement.
It took Marjorie
mere seconds to take it all in. Then she spotted Donny and
spurred herself into action.
Donny was on the
floor near the fast food pile, wrapped in some kind of blanket,
between two of the…Goblins, she admitted to herself. They
had to be Goblins. They were facing away from her, and seemed
to be in a heated discussion with another Goblin, larger
than the rest, wearing more and better clothing, as well
as a weird kind of crown.
A faint childhood
memory surfaced, of a teenage girl in some movie mumbling, “You’re
him, aren’t you? The Goblin King.” Fury rose in her. Ignoring
everything else, she strode towards the three Goblins surrounding
half the distance when the creature she’d dubbed the Goblin
King noticed her. He silenced the two others with a gesture.
They turned around and watched her approach.
A few feet away,
she stopped. Ignoring the other two, she faced the King.
Half-remembered ritual words bubbled from her lips.
“Give me the child!
Through dangers untold, and hardships unnumbered…”
the King spoke. His voice rattled and squeaked.
Don’t come to me with your movie nonsense!”
“Don’t tell me
what I can’t do!” she burst out. “You stole my baby, and
I’m taking him back now!”
gathered Donny and his rough blanket into her arms.
“Of course you
are,” the King said. “It’s all a terrible mistake.”
“These two,” he
bit, gesturing at the embarrassed youths, “have a lot to
They hung their
heads and shuffled their feet with eerie semblance to abashed
children. Marjorie felt the wind dropping from her sails.
“What do you mean?
What were you doing with my baby?”
a while. Apparently, what the Goblins did was steal stuff.
Where humans advanced by discovering, inventing, developing,
the Goblins stole. The King made it sound like two equivalent
and equally honorable paths, and Marjorie held her thoughts
about that to herself.
stole whatever they could get their hands on, including treasure,
livestock and even children.
The crowd gathering
around them snickered as one.
“So easy to blame
us, isn’t it? No, changelings were just an easy excuse whenever
a really ugly child was born. I don’t know how you define
stealing, but we never replace what we take.”
somewhere in the Middle Ages, humans had had enough. They
had tried to hunt down and kill every last one of the thieving
creatures. They would have succeeded too, but a particularly
diplomatic Goblin had intervened.
“We made a truce,” the
king said. “We agreed to take ‘only that which is lifeless,
and has been lost or abandoned through carelessness or purposeful
action’. In exchange, humans promised to leave us in peace.”
think my Donny is lifeless? ”
The two young
ones squirmed, and the King said:
These two will be on fast food sorting detail for two months.
They thought they could cross the line, but they were wrong!” The
last word was shouted at the two offenders, who looked like
they wanted to disappear into the ground. “I apologize. Please
take your child back.”
“There is one
small problem,” a voice sounded from the gathered crowd.
One of the Goblins was making its way through the audience.
It was grey and bowed and moved with slow care.
counselor?” the king asked.
“The terms of
the truce are clear,” the counselor said. “What we steal
is ours, no matter what the circumstances. Nothing
can be given back; it can only be exchanged.”
From the crowd
came a murmur of agreement. The King frowned.
“I’m afraid my
counselor is right,” he said. “Even under these circumstances,
we are bound to the terms of the truce. Giving back your
child would be as grave an offence against those terms as
the theft itself. It must be exchanged.”
Marjorie was only
half-listening. She had an idea that made her chuckle as
“Tell me, king:
I saw the cables and ducts and tubes in the tunnel. Do you
steal utilities as well as forgotten items in cars?”
“Yes, we have
gas, water, electricity…everything. Why do you ask?”
“Do you have cable,
Hours later, Marjorie
was having a luxurious soak, lavender bath oil spreading
its calming scent. Donny was splashing and spluttering in
his own little bath, gurgling happily as he pounded the water
with a rubber duck.
“Dada?” he muttered.
the wall of LCD screens. The king had assured her they regularly
stole crates of beer and bags of chips, and the fast food
pile yielded plenty of leftovers.
sweetie, watching the game.”